Pats pound 49ers

Pffffffffft. So much for thinking the 49ers can hang at home with the New England Patriots. They couldn't Sunday. The Pats showed the Niners how it's done before a packed house at Candlestick Park – and also how much farther San Francisco has to go to get it done against a championship-level team during a 30-21 pounding that left the home team deflated for the second week in a row.

This one seemed worse than last week's two-touchdown loss in New Orleans, simply because San Francisco owned momentum and a14-7 lead just 10 minutes into the game, only to see the Patriots take away both before halftime and then keep both throughout the remainder of the afternoon.

And the 49ers could only stand by helplessly and do nothing about it.

"They did what they wanted throughout the day," 49ers defensive end Justin Smith said. "And we just couldn't stop them. That falls on us."

And, contrary to last week's 31-17 loss in New Orleans, when the 49ers moved the ball offensively throughout the game, the San Francisco attack sputtered to a season-low 199 yards, converting just 1 of 9 third-down opportunities.

With New England controlling the ball on the ground and hitting on several key third-down passes to keep the chains moving, the Patriots owned the time of possession for almost 40 minutes – two-thirds of the game – while San Francisco's offense was on the field for only 20 minutes, eight seconds.

That was the difference as the Patriots just kept plugging away down the field – they assembled six drives of 34 yards or more – to silence the crowd and slowly extinguish San Francisco's hopes of remaining a first-place team for a third consecutive week. The 49ers (2-3) dropped a game behind first-place Arizona (3-2) in the NFC West.

"Defensively, we've got to get off the field better, obviously," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "And offensively, we definitely have to stay on the field. We've got to convert on third down."

Still, despite their inability to sustain drives, and despite three interceptions by quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan, the 49ers managed to creep within 27-21 with 10:22 remaining on O'Sullivan's 5-yard scoring pass to Isaac Bruce – O'Sullivan's third touchdown throw of the day and his second to Bruce.

But the Patriots answered by grinding out three first downs and taking time off the clock before positioning Stephen Gostkowski for a 49-yard field attempt, which he drilled with plenty of room to spare to put New England back ahead by two scores with 4:47 remaining.

Any hopes of a late San Francisco comeback ended a few minutes later when a harassed O'Sullivan's desperation pass was intercepted on fourth-and-16. The 49ers got the ball back once more, only to see a pressured O'Sullivan forced to throw the ball away on fourth-and-11, an appropriately hapless ending to a day when the San Francisco offense struggled after a promising opening quarter.

"We had too many three-and-outs," said O'Sullivan, who finished 14 of 29 for just 130 yards passing. "There were a lot of reasons. They were playing coverages sometimes and bringing pressure sometimes. They gave us multiple looks, but at the same time, that's what we expected. I'm not going to make any excuses. We have to go out there and execute whatever play is called. Anything else is an excuse."

Excuses didn't seem like they'd be necessary after the 49ers survived O'Sullivan's first interception near the New England goal line to respond with a short touchdown drive the next time they touched the ball. O'Sullivan's 16-yard touchdown pass to Frank Gore gave the 49ers a 7-0 lead.

The Patriots struck right back three plays later as, on a third-and-8 play, defensive backs Nate Clements and Walt Harris allowed Randy Moss to run right past them down the middle of the field and reel in a 66-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Cassel.

Not to be outdone, O'Sullivan and Co. answered with a crisp, four-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that gave the lead back to the 49ers at 14-7 just two minutes later.

But it was all downhill from there for the Niners as the Patriots regrouped and methodically took command.

"When you lose a game like this – a game I think we all felt that we're definitely capable of winning – and seeing how we got out ahead at the beginning … We just have to maintain and stay consistent, and we have to finish," Harris said. "We're not doing a good job of finishing."

The Patriots (3-1) were the finishers Sunday.

New England responded to the early deficit with 20 unanswered points. Over the course of nine possessions between the second and fourth quarters, the Patriots scored on six and had drives of 10 plays or more four times to effectively grab hold of the game.

With Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Laurence Maroney and LaMont Jordan sharing carries, the Patriots had 97 yards rushing by halftime and finished with 144. Cassel, who was intercepted twice by the 49ers in the first 17 minutes, was sacked five times but still finished 22 of 32 for 259 yards passing to complement New England's clock-controlling ground game.

Thirteen of Cassel's completions went for first downs as the Patriots converted 47 percent of their third-down attempts (8 of 17).

"They were able to convert a lot on third downs," said 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes, who had the first interception of Cassel and finished with 14 tackles. "It's not like they surprised us or anything. The just executed better than we did in those situations."

Which made New England clearly look like the better team by the time this one was over. The game was even more one-sided than the scoreboard might suggest.

"I was really proud of the way our guys played and fought back and kept making plays," said New England coach Bill Belichick, who has now guided the Patriots to six consecutive victories coming of their bye week. "In the end, we made enough to win, and that credit goes all the way around. We fought back through some adversity and kept their heads up and just kept working."

Meanwhile, things were not working for the 49ers as their defense was rolled for 377 total yards and 25 first downs and they had their least-productive offensive showing of the year to start the second stage of the season.

That left the appearance San Francisco is moving backwards as it traverses the most difficult stretch of its schedule, which continues next week against the Philadelphia Eagles, with a trip to visit the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants the week after that.

"It's really pretty simple: We didn't make plays, and they took it to us and won it," Smith said. "But it's not the end of the world. We're 2-3 and now we have to come out and get a win next week. And that's only going to happen if we do a better job."

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