By David Willis
---- — FOXBORO — It may not have been pretty, but a very clear statement was made through the rain and fog last night at Gillette Stadium.
The 49ers proved they are a legitimate contender, and the road to a Super Bowl title appears to now go through San Francisco.
After the Patriots delivered a crushing punch, rallying back from a 28-point deficit to tie the game with 6:43 left, San Francisco could have bowed to the team of the last decade.
Instead, the 49ers endured what could have made the best of teams crumble, and bounced off the canvas punching on the way to a 41-34 victory last night.
“This was BIG,” said defensive back Carlos Rogers. “Flying across the country, playing this team. Everything thought we were going to lose, and to hang in there and get this win against (the Patriots) was huge.”
It wasn‘t a masterpiece. In fact, it was downright ugly. Like, Charlie Sheen after a Las Vegas bender ugly.
But, when the heat was on in a nationally televised game, it was the 49ers — not the perennially resilient Patriots — that hung on for a victory in what could have been a preview of Super Bowl VLVII.
“We showed that we are strong,” said linebacker NaVorro Bowman. “We knew that we would face some adversity and they would make some plays. But we showed we could overcome a lot of adversity. We just needed to settle down.”
Last night was perfect Brady/Belichick magic, another chapter in the storied legacy of two Hall of Fame icons at the top of the sport. It was too perfect that it would be another epic comeback by the two all-time football giants against a formally great organization.
With the 49ers seeming in control with 10:21 to go in the third, holding a 31-3 lead, the Patriots suddenly turned the tide in epic fashion.
Against the team he grew up rooting for, Tom Brady and the Patriots scored 28 points in a matter of just over 15 minutes to tie the game 31-31 with 6:43 left on a Danny Woodhead touchdown run.
Game over, right?
Patriots had stolen momentum, and like so many times the master strategist (Belichick) and the iconic QB would finish off another comeback against this unproven squad.
It was only a matter of time until the Patriots took the lead for good, right?
But now so fast.
Fiery 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and his squad weren’t ready to bow at the shrine of Brady just yet, and had another few tricks up their sleeves.
On the kickoff following Woodead’s touchdown, backup return man LaMichael James broke free for a 62-yard return to the New England 38-yard line. One play later, Colin Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree for a touchdown to retake the lead.
When the Patriots got the ball back, the 49ers continued to shine, sacking Brady on second and third down, and never allowing the Patriots to retake any momentum.
“We had to show their offense that we were settled and we weren’t rattled,” said Bowman. “We had to realize that we weren’t down. We had to just put our foot on the gas one more time. No adjustments. Coach keeps us poised, and we made plays and our offense fed off that.”
It was sloppier than the weather. It was uglier than the traffic outside of Gillette Stadium. But when the 49ers had to step up against the premier team in the NFL, they did exactly that.
They avoided being the latest in a long, long line of victims of Brady greatness, and held on for the win.
Is San Francisco a perfect team? No way. But it is a team that can run the football with gritty Frank Gore, that has a dynamic if inconsistent QB in Kaepernick that has plenty of weapons like Crabtree and – yes – Randy Moss, and a defense that can do what Brady hates mores, pressure him up the middle.
If last night is any indication, the Patriots could be facing a very tough test if they are taking on the Niners in February in New Orleans.