49ers report card: Grading the Patriots game

Handing out grades to the 49ers while breaking down every unit of the team in detail for its performance in a resounding 41-34 road victory over the New England Patriots that clinched a playoff berth and marked San Francisco as a legitimate Super Bowl favorite heading into the final weeks of the regular season.

QUARTERBACKS -- Grade: A-minus
Sure, there were the four bobbled-snap fumbles. Yes, there was the interception in the end zone when he failed to recognize a safety falling off another zone in coverage. But considering the body of work Colin Kaepernick produced on the biggest stage yet in his bourgeoning career as the 49ers starting quarterback, those errors end up being just little hiccups on a night when Kaepernick stood up against the great Tom Brady and out-played the future Hall of Fame QB. Kaepernick threw a career-high four touchdown passes in his fifth NFL start – the most by a San Francisco quarterback in a game since 2003 – and each of them came from 24 yards out or beyond. One of them was a laser shot to Michael Crabtree down the middle seam between two converging safeties – a pass that even the NFL's most elite quarterbacks would be proud to make. Kaepernick played with poise throughout the night in extreme and pressure-packed conditions, and he eluded the New England defense (just one sack) and kept plays alive with his feet (28 yards rushing) while throwing for 216 yards (averaging 15.4 per completion) and finishing with a 107.7 passer rating – 38.8 better than Brady The Great.

In the biggest of games, when the 49ers needed him most, Frank Gore once again stepped up big-time to give San Francisco the vital ground-game presence it needed to balance the offense and keep New England's defense guessing while also working time off the clock. Gore powered for 83 yards rushing on 21 carries and added another 34 yards on two receptions, and though it won't count as a rushing touchdown, he made one of the game's key heads-up plays when he picked up a loose football Kaepernick had fumbled in the backfield on first-and-goal and charged nine yards up the gut into the end zone to put the Niners ahead 24-3 early in the third quarter. LaMichael James contributed 31 rushing yards – including a 17-yard scamper – to give Gore a blow and Anthony Dixon pounded for seven yard on his two carries.

This may be the game we look back on as the night Michael Crabtree took his game to the next level. From San Francisco's first offensive play – when he made a tough catch for a first down while tightly-covered – Crabtree made his presence and impact felt throughout the game, and his two touchdown catches were of the big-time variety. The first, from 27 yards out, saw Crabtree reach up for a Kaepernick pass near the goal line with two safeties converging on him. The second – which provided the game-winning touchdown – saw Crabtree reach down to make the catch, then loop around a defender before racing 38 yards to paydirt. Crabtree led the 49ers with seven receptions for 107 yards, and even those big numbers belie his impact. Randy Moss had two catches for 36 yards on San Francisco's first possession – the second a 24-yard TD reception in which Moss raced behind the New England secondary – but those were his only catches. Three TDs and a 15.8-yard average on nine receptions from their starting wideouts in poor conditions represented a standout night for the Niners from this position.

TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: B-plus
Vernon Davis was on the field for all but one of San Francisco's 68 offensive plays, and although he finished with just one reception for 10 yards, he commanded attention from the New England defense and made an impact with his blocking. He had an early opportunity for a touchdown reception when he got behind the secondary but did not lay out for a pass that may have been within his reach. Delanie Walker had a killer fumble that he lost inside the New England 5-yard line, but he later made up for the TD he might have given away with a 34-yard scoring catch. Walker also saw significant playing time with WR Mario Manningham missing the game with a shoulder injury.

OFFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: A-minus
Right guard Alex Boone had a 10-yard penalty for illegal use of hands that helped bog down a drive during New England's flurry of four consecutive TDs, but this was otherwise a strong performance by a unit that blocked well for the running game and provided stellar protection for Kaepernick on passing downs. Center Jonathan Goodwin seemed to be getting the ball into Kaepernick's hands fine on the snaps that were bobbled by the quarterback. Goodwin and guards Boone and Mike Iupati did a good job holding up beefy Pats tackle Vince Wilfork in the interior. The Niners finished with 180 yards rushing going against the strength of the New England defense, and veteran reserve guard Leonard Davis contributed 15 solid snaps, some of them while subbing for an injured Iupati, who later returned to the game.

Unit was dominant in the early going, getting good push up front on passing downs and allowing the Patriots to get little going on the ground in the first half. But it seemed to disappear during a key sequence as the Pats were blowing through the San Francisco defense for touchdown drives of 73, 86, 66 and 92 yards during a 14-minute stretch to erase a 28-point San Francisco lead. Plenty of the reason for that, no doubt, was the loss of All-Pro tackle Justin Smith for most of that stretch. The line regrouped to shut down the Pats when it counted, however, and Ray McDonald and Ricky Jean Francois both came up with huge sacks late in the fourth quarter. McDonald had one of his finest games of the season and produced the first two-sack regular-season game of his career.

LINEBACKERS -- Grade: A-minus
NaVorro Bowman set the tone by blasting through the New England line to drop Stevan Ridley for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 to halt the Patriots' first offensive drive. Bowman and Patrick Willis were both stellar the rest of the way, never leaving the field through 94 New England offensive plays and making sideline-to-sideline contributions with 11 tackles each. Bowman also forced a fumble that was recovered by the Niners. There was a lapse, however, in stopping the run during New England's flurry of 28 consecutive points. NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith got good pressure from the edge despite being held without a sack for the first time in eight games, and Smith also recorded the first interception of his career. Otherwise, Smith and Ahmad Brooks were quiet, finishing with one tackle each, though Brooks also produced some pressure on passing downs.

While allowing 443 yards passing to Brady and Co., there were simply too many plays – not to mention big-chunk plays – allowed in coverage by this unit for it to receive a top grade. But otherwise, it played much better than that number might suggest, and the Pats scored just one passing touchdown. Brady had to work for that yardage by throwing a career-high 65 times, and he barely completed half of his passes in the first half when San Francisco was assuming command of the game. Carlos Rogers had great coverage on Wes Welker throughout the first three quarters, producing his first interception of the season and a dazzling 53-yard return to begin New England's third offensive possession. Tarell Brown had an interference penalty near the goal line that cost the 49ers 38 yards and led to a New England touchdown, but he finished with eight tackles. Chris Culliver gave up more plays in man coverage than he usually does, but he again battled with receivers on the edge throughout the night. Among his seven tackles, Donte Whitner had a huge hit on Ridley that produced a fumble Dashon Goldson returned 66 yards to set up a touchdown on the next play. Whitner and Goldson – who both were on the field for every defensive snap – again were heavy hitters throughout the night, with Goldson drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty for a vicious hit on tight end Aaron Hernandez, who obviously was still thinking about that hit on the next play when a pass deflected off his hands and was intercepted.

SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: B-minus
This grade would be worse if it wasn't for LaMichael James' momentum-swinging 62-yard kickoff return that answered New England's fourth consecutive TD drive that had tied the score. Given that spark, the Niners scored on the next play and finally resumed control of a game they once led 31-3. Ted Ginn Jr. had two near-gaffes fielding punts, and they both could have been costly. He averaged just 5.0 yards on the three punts he did return and is giving the 49ers reason to wonder if he's still the right man for the job. David Akers missed a 39-yard field goal when the 49ers were blowing several early opportunities to score, but he later connected on short kicks from 20 and 28 yards. Still, he needs to make all three of those. The coverage units were very strong and punter Andy Lee was spectacular in poor kicking conditions, averaging 56.6 yards with a phenomenal 54.0 net on his five kicks, landing three of them inside the New England 20-yard line.

COACHING -- Grade: B
Coaches had the 49ers primed to play in one of the biggest showdowns of the NFL regular season, and the game plans were stellar on both sides of the ball as the 49ers came out throwing long to expose the weaknesses in the New England defense and had the right scheme in place to frustrate Tom Brady and the NFL's top-ranked offense throughout the first half. The Niners, however, made a strategic error by changing their approach after jumping out to a 31-3 lead, when the offensive play-calling turned conservative and predictable and the defense sat back to protect that lead instead of doing what it does best, which is playing aggressively. That cost the 49ers, and they were fortunate their players, instead of wilting, responded to make the plays that won the game after the Pats had come all the way back to tie it at 31-31. Only then did the aggression return on both sides of the ball for the 49ers, who closed out a colossal, defining victory by dealing the Pats a knockout blow over the final six minutes.

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