EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 17, 2012

Road to Super Bowl now filled with hurdles

Patriots: They have a much tougher road now

Bill Burt
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — FOXBORO — Lost in the shuffle of one of the strangest rollercoaster rides here at Gillette Stadium last night, in which the New England Patriots overcame a four-touchdown deficit (31-3) only to blow it a few seconds later, is this fact: This Super Bowl “thing” isn’t going to be as easy as we all expected.

The tracks appeared to be greased for a bye, homefield and all of that juicy stuff en route to New Orleans in February.

They appeared to have more than made up for that 3-3 start with seven straight wins, including four by three touchdowns or more.

But that all changed last night with the Patriots’ 41-34 loss to the, oh-we-forgot-how-good-and-tough-they-are San Francisco 49ers.

The Denver Broncos, winners of nine in a row after being blitzed here at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 7, have catapulted past the Patriots and now are two easy wins on their schedule — home games against Cleveland and Kansas City.

They win, they get a one week vacation and will host somebody in Denver. As the probable No. 3 seed, that “somebody” is most probably the Patriots.

And the Houston Texans, humiliated here last Monday night (42-14), need only one win against Minnesota or (at) Indianapolis and they get the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Another painful development on this harder-than-expected Super Bowl run was the return of fumble-itis for Patriots “star” running back Stevan Ridley, who finished with 23 yards on nine rushes.

He was charged with only one lost fumble, but he lost the ball another time just after he hit the ground (it was overturned and ruled down by contact). He had another ball stripped last week in the red zone.

This happened last December as well – he lost two fumbles in December – and he disappeared into oblivion in January.

In the past, this gets a player on the bench. Well, who replaces him? Shane Vereen? He had a fumble, too, after a short pass reception and never returned.

As for last night, it was very disappointing. The Patriots, for the first time in a very long time, were not prepared for a team of this caliber.

The 49ers did everything the Patriots usually do: win the toss, defer, get the first touchdown, get a second touchdown and make you play catch up.

It was striking how the 49ers pushed the pace, particularly on offense, confusing the Patriots defenders, and getting a Bill Belichick team on its heels.

The play that best exemplified that was a screen pass to Frank Gore on the 49ers first drive of the second half. He broke two tackles and scampered 23 yards for a heart-breaking first down. It was a very “Patriot-like” play.

“The season is not over,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. “We still have two games to play.”

Brady is right. There are two games remaining against (at) Jacksonville and Miami, both expected wins.

But now the Patriots will go back to their Super Bowl era roots, particularly the first Super Bowl, when expectations were low.

Maybe that’s what these Patriots needed, a little “dissing” from America. Because I can tell you one thing after last night, the “dissing” is coming.

Email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.