49ers vs. Patriots: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their classic 41-34 victory over New England on Sunday night, including the Kap to Crab connection, LaMichael James answering back, a defensive collapse followed by a defensive finish, Frank Gore's clean-up TD, Randy Moss going deep, big plays in the secondary, Ted Ginn muffing punts, ending awesome New England streaks and much more? Check inside.

Thumbs up: After dominating the NFL's top-ranked offense for more than a half, then completely falling apart for more than a quarter, the Niners' mean and determined defense came through when it counted most – even with All-Pro tackle Justin Smith on the bench nursing an injured elbow – stopping New England on two late fourth-quarter offensive possessions after the Patriots had scored touchdowns on each of their four possessions before that.

Thumbs down: But the Patriots are never out of it, and somebody should have told the 49ers that when they were cruising with a lopsided 31-3 lead early in the third quarter.

Thumbs up: Talk about answering back. After the Patriots score touchdowns on four consecutive drives to erase a 28-point 49ers lead, LaMichael James takes the ensuing at his own goal line and scoots and weaves down the left side for a 62-yard return to set up the Niners in New England territory.

Thumbs up: And on the very next play, Colin Kaepernick gets the ball to Michael Crabtree in the face of a blitz, and Crabtree sidesteps a defender and bolts 38 yards for the winning touchdown.

Thumbs up: That was the second time Kaepernick and Crabtree burned the New England defense after a momentous play by their teammates. After San Francisco's second interception, Kaepernick dropped back on the next play and let sail a perfect rope spiral down the middle that Crabtree went up and got between two defenders at the goal line, showing toughness while splitting New England's safeties to put the Niners ahead 31-3 with 10:21 still remaining in the third quarter.

Thumbs up: And this is why Kaepernick is now entrenched as San Francisco's starting quarterback. On the biggest of stages, with the Niners an underdog and needing a victory for so many reasons, Kap outplayed the great Tom Brady, and in the end that's why the 49ers won.

Thumbs up: Kaepernick finished with four touchdown passes, burning the Patriots deep as he averaged 15.4 yards per completion with all of his touchdown throws coming from 24 yards out or beyond. Cool Kap never wavered with the game on the line, finishing with a 107.7 passer rating that far outshined Brady's pedestrian 68.9 rating and one touchdown pass.

Thumbs up: Kaepernick to Crabtree on the right side for 11 yards. Kaepernick to Crabtree on the left side for 13 yards. The Niners came out passing on their first two offensive plays, and that was a pretty good way to jump-start their attack.

Thumbs up: The Kap to Crab connection was a good way for the 49ers to finish off the Pats, too, with Crabs accounting for half of San Francisco's completions while leading the Niners with seven receptions for 107 yards.

Thumbs up: With the Patriots needing just a yard to convert on the game's first third down, NaVorro Bowman blows through the New England to stop Stevan Ridley for a two-yard loss to show the Patriots what kind of night it was going to be for their offense. Or, at least, how it was going to be until the Pats finally came alive in the third quarter.

Thumbs up: Kaepernick also had it going on with Randy Moss, who went up in the air for a two-handed grab and took a big sandwich hit from linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Aqib Talib but held onto the ball for a 12-yard gain as the 49ers picked up first downs on their first three offensive plays.

Thumbs up: And then two plays later, with the Niners facing their first third down, it was vintage Randy Moss, as the 14th-year veteran blew past rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard on a one-cut post pattern, and Kaepernick finds him streaking free in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass as safety Devin McCourty can't get over in time as the Niners draw first blood on their first offensive series.

Thumbs down: David Akers going wide left on a 39-yard field-goal attempt late in the first quarter when the 49ers are blowing opportunity after opportunity to put points on the board? Can the Niners count on their All-Pro kicker at all anymore? That miss dropped Akers' percentage of missed field goals below 70 percent for the season.

Thumbs up: It was risky, but you have to appreciate the gumption of the Niners to try and catch the Patriots off guard with a fake punt on fourth-and-10 from their own 41-yard line late in the first quarter. Fool the Patriots San Francisco did, as up-back Dashon Goldson took a direct snap and motored around the left edge for a 31-yard gain into New England territory.

Thumbs up: Cornerback Carlos Rogers delivered the first blow in his game-within-a-game with prolific slot receiver Wes Welker, running stride for stride with Welker on the first play of New England's third offensive drive as Brady tried to hit Welker long. Instead, Rogers made an over-the-shoulder interception, then wiggled and waggled and danced and pranced down the field for a 53-yard return to the New England 5-yard line.

Thumbs down: But two plays later, the Niners blew another golden opportunity for points as Delanie Walker fumbled after catching a ball in the right flat, giving the ball back to the Patriots and giving the Niners nothing to show for Rogers' momentous takeaway.

Thumbs up: But Walker made up for it late in the second quarter, reeling in a 34-yard strike from Kaepernick for the touchdown that allowed the 49ers to start pulling away after their early missed opportunities, the first of a run of 24 consecutive San Francisco points.

Thumbs down: Three fumbled snaps by Kaepernick in the first half helped slow down the 49ers from taking over the game, particularly when Kap once again couldn't handle the exchange on a fourth-and-1 opportunity at the New England 25, leaving the 49ers without points again after driving deep into Pats territory.

Thumbs up: Kaepernick's fourth fumbled snap while under center came on a first-and-goal from the 3 early in the third quarter, but Frank Gore was there to clean it up, picking up the ball at the 9, taking one step right, then cutting back to his left and bursting up the middle to paydirt for a 9-yard fumble recovery that gave the Niners a three-touchdown lead.

Thumbs up: Goldson and Whitner, San Francisco's big-hitting safeties, both struck fear into Patriots receivers with some heavy collisions over the middle, and Whitner showed textbook form when he put his helmet on the ball while tackling running back Stevan Ridley in the third quarter, forcing a fumble that Goldson caught in the air and returned 66 yards to set up Gore's fumblerooski TD return on the next play.

Thumbs up: The 49ers forced four New England turnovers in all, matching the number of giveaways the Patriots had in their previous six home games this season.

Thumbs down: Ted Ginn got bailed out after a long and confusing replay challenge, but Ginn has got to be more decisive when fielding punts that he allows to bounce in front of him. Ginn let a bouncing punt to come oh-so-close to grazing off his leg and being recovered by the Patriots, bringing up horrible memories of Kyle Williams' gaffe against the Giants in last season's NFC Championship Game. Ginn muffed another punt late in the fourth quarter that almost proved disastrous before he was able to land on the ball after he got a gratuitous bounce.

Thumbs up: The long arms and big hands of Aldon Smith collected the first interception of his career with a heads up play in the third quarter, when Smith plucked a ball out of the air that had been tipped by a teammate and took it back to the New England 27, leading to yet another 49ers touchdown.

Thumbs down: The third TD in the Patriots run of 28 unanswered points was set up by a 38-yard interference penalty on Tarell Brown, who has to know better than to get his legs tangled up with Brandon Lloyd when an uncatchable ball is sailing over the head of both receiver and defender. That set up the Pats with a first-and-goal, and they scored on the next play to come within 31-24 with 12:13 left in the game.

Thumbs up: But all's well that ends well, and after the Pats had come all the way back to tie the game 31-31, the Niners stifled the New England offense in a wild final six minutes, with San Francisco's dynamic duo of middle linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, making plays like they had been most of the night. The terrific twosome had 11 tackles each to lead the Niners.

Thumbs up: And with the San Francisco defense gassed as the Patriots came to the tail end of their incredible 92 offensive plays on the evening, Ray McDonald and Ricky Jean Francois – playing in place of injured Justin Smith – both came up with big sacks during the Pats' last-gasp drives, with McDonald dumping Brady after his helmet had been ripped off his head by a New England lineman. It was the first sack of the season for Francois and just the second of his five-year career.

Thumbs up: And now the Niners are back in the playoffs, clinching a playoff berth for the second consecutive year, giving San Francisco back-to-back playoff berths and 10-win seasons for the first time since 2001-2002.

Thumbs up: And they did it by ending a lot of awesome streaks by the Patriots, who saw their 20-game home winning streak in December games ended along with their 21-game streak of victories in the second half of seasons over the past three years, not to mention the seven-game winning streak the Pats brought into the game.

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