(NECN/AP) - Tom Brady and the potent Patriots offense finally surfaced in the second half of Sunday night's game against the San Francisco 49ers.
By then, it was too late.
"We blew a half off and it cost us, big time," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said after the Patriots rallied from a 28-point deficit to tie the score before losing 41-34. "We blew off 30 minutes of a football game. It's going to be tough to come back against any kind of team, especially the type of team the 49ers are."
Colin Kaepernick threw for four touchdowns - two to Michael Crabtree, who took a short pass and sped around cornerback Kyle Arrington for a 38-yard touchdown that put the 49ers back in front with 6:25 to go. David Akers made a 28-yard field goal to make it a two possession game.
Tom Brady led New England (10-4) into San Francisco territory, and coach Bill Belichick opted for a quick field goal with 38 seconds left. Delanie Walker recovered the ensuing onside kick for the 49ers and enabled them to run out the clock.
Brady threw for 443 yards and a touchdown, and he also ran one in on a sneak while leading the Patriots back from a 31-3 deficit. But the Patriots also had a season-high four turnovers, including two interceptions by Brady.
"We just spotted them 28 points," said Brady, who had a touchdown pass for the 46th straight game. "We fought hard, but you can't play poorly against a good team and expect to win."
The Patriots, who had had won seven in a row, lost for the first time at home in December in 21 games.
Kaepernick threw for 216 yards to help the 49ers (10-3-1) clinch at least a wild-card spot; they play at Seattle next week with a chance to clinch the NFC West. A loss would bring the division race down to the final weekend.
Crabtree had 107 yards receiving, scoring his first touchdown in the third quarter to give the 49ers a 31-3 lead.
But then the Niners began sleepwalking, and back came Brady and the Patriots on a 6-yard TD run by Danny Woodhead and a 1-yard dive by Brady. A 5-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez and Woodhead's 1-yard run with 6:43 left in the fourth quarter tied it.
And just like that, San Francisco went in front again.
Rookie LaMichael James broke free for a 62-yard kickoff return. On the next snap - the third time the Niners would have a one-play TD drive - Crabtree took a pass on the left side, spun and headed into the end zone.
New England turned over the ball on downs and Akers made his kick from 28 yards out. Stephen Gostkowski added a 41-yarder for the Patriots with 38 seconds remaining, but they needed the onside kick to try to complete the unlikely comeback.
San Francisco led 17-3 at the half. And they looked safe after Frank Gore picked up Kaepernick's third fumble and scored on a 9-yard run, followed by Crabtree's 27-yard score in a pinpoint pass from the second-year quarterback.
The defense set up both of San Francisco's TDs in the third.
Dashon Goldson returned Stevan Ridley's fumble 66 yards to the New England 3 before Gore found the end zone. Defensive end Aldon Smith, known for his sacks, grabbed a pass out of Hernandez's hands for his first career interception. After he was tackled, Smith ran directly to the sideline and sat down on the 49ers' bench.
He was back up on his feet cheering the next play, when Crabtree broke free to make it 31-3.
But no one can relax against the Patriots.
Unlike a week ago, when the Patriots routed Houston, they fell behind quickly in the rain and ran only 10 snaps on their opening three series. San Francisco's fearsome pass rush was sharp then, and Brady was hit on the arm twice while trying to pass.
Even worse, his long throw on their third possession for Wes Welker was picked off by Carlos Rogers, who then slalomed his way on the wet turf toward the New England end zone. Only Brady stood in his way at the 5, and Rogers fell trying to elude him.
It was a key stop because Delanie Walker fumbled two plays later.
Earlier, Kaepernick accounted for 60 yards through the air on the 49ers' first drive. Randy Moss showed the kind of elusiveness that made him a record-setter in New England from 2007 until he was traded early in the 2010 by getting behind the secondary for a 24-yard TD.
His short celebration as he faced the crowd drew loud hoots.
Brady preventing Rogers from scoring was about the only highlight for the Patriots in the opening quarter, but the 49ers weren't any more effective beyond their scoring drive and a 38-yard run Goldson on a fake punt. The slopfest included Akers' being wide left on a 39-yard field goal.
All this from teams ranked 1-2 in fewest giveaways.
When the Patriots finally got their usually unstoppable offense going, they used 16 plays and converted a fourth down. But they stumbled inside the 10 when Brady was sacked by Ray McDonald. Gostkowski made a 32-yard field goal.
San Francisco answered quickly, helped by a 35-yard pass interference call on Aqib Talib. Walker slipped behind a zone defense for a 34-yard TD pass from Kaepernick, making it 14-3.
Akers made a 20-yard field goal as the half ended, finishing a 15-play, 76-yard drive. The three points were the Patriots' fewest in a half all season, and they were outgained 249-113.
Of course, that turned around in the second half.
Aside from the players' mistakes, the game also was slowed by officiating confusion that led to several lengthy conferences. One delay took about 10 minutes to decide whether 49ers punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. muffed a second-quarter kick.
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