With 6 minutes and 43 seconds remaining in the 4th Quarter, Danny Woodhead took a handoff from Tom Brady at the San Francisco 1 yard line. The entire 49ers defense had muscled up in the middle, expecting a Brady sneak. Instead, Woodhead slipped to his left and walked into the end zone untouched. This New England score tied the game at 31.
In the span of less than one game quarter of time, the Patriots had managed 4 consecutive Touchdown drives around 3 consecutive 3-and-out drives from the 49ers. This game that had appeared a cakewalk had all of a sudden gotten away from the 49ers, and now they were in danger of being on the wrong end of what would tie the greatest comeback in NFL History (a record these same 49ers set back in 1980). The Patriots offense finally kicked into their regular high gear, and their defense, suspect most of the night, adjusted and eventually stopped the 49ers cold, forcing Kaepernick into scrambles, bad passes and sacks. As a whole, the 49ers were reeling, and not only was the game slipping away, but perhaps the entire season was starting to fade as well. A loss would have meant that the 49ers would have merely a half game lead over the Seahawks, whom they are traveling to Seattle to play on yet another primetime affair next Sunday. A loss in Seattle, and the 49ers would no longer lead the division, and a playoff berth would be a dicey proposition. To say things looked bleak was an understatement. This was right on the verge of a full-blown disaster.
And in two plays, everything was fixed.
LaMichael James, the rookie Running Back who hadn't been active much this season until Kendall Walker's injury, had also taken over for Hunter on Kickoffs. A speedy, elusive player, James was deserving of whatever opportunity he could get his hands on. And in this crucial situation, he knew a short return wouldn't cut it. Pinned in their own end, the 49ers had struggled to do much of anything while the Patriots were storming back. To this point, their second half offense had consisted of a pair of one-play drives. They needed a jolt, something that would give them good field position to start. And James delivered a huge return, following a lane-clearing block from Delanie Walker and scampering 62 yards to the New England 38 Yard Line. One play later, the ball was in the End Zone. Kaepernick, facing a big blitz from the Patriots, threw a short screen pass out to Michael Crabtree, who shook a tackle from the only New England Defender anywhere close to him, Kyle Arrington, and ran the remainder of the 38 yards to Paydirt. The 49ers regained the lead 38-31, and although they still had 6 minutes of game to go, the Patriots didn't have another comeback left in them, eventually falling in a wild 41-34 affair that lasted nearly 4 hours.
Just like that, the 49ers had taken back the game, taken back the momentum, and perhaps taken back their season. A loss would have undone every bit of good that they had accomplished in this game and pretty much everything they had accomplished under Colin Kaepernick these past few weeks. In reality, little blame could have been put on Kaepernick, short of his inability to handle a direct snap from Center Jonathan Goodwin. In terrible conditions, Kaepernick came out and zipped passes through the rain that were almost always on target, save for one Interception early in the 3rd Quarter that was of little consequence. Though it was his final Touchdown pass that proved to be most important, the other three he threw were pretty key as well. Without his work, and the help he received from Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree (and even Randy Moss, who opened the scoring with a long Touchdown catch), the 49ers wouldn't have been in the position of having such a large lead to cough up.
So, no, this was not the prettiest win for the 49ers. But it was a statement nonetheless. The Patriots are notorious for their unparalleled record of success both in their home stadium and late in the season. The 49ers proved themselves hearty enough to go cross-country, into a hostile environment in bad weather and come away with a victory. Not many teams have been able to sock the Patriots in the mouth the way the 49ers did for most of the game, and fewer still have the fortitude to be able to get up off the mat and fight back after blowing a lead as quickly as they did. So, rather than heading into Sunday night's Divisional Championship Showdown in Seattle reeling and hoping to survive, the 49ers come in on a high, having already won a big time road game under the Prime Time lights, having assured themselves of a spot in the Playoffs, and continuing to be in the drivers seat in the NFC West. One victory in their final two games will clinch the Division, and two victories will earn them a first-round bye. At this point, the 49ers appear ready to do win by any means necessary. Sometimes, that's what it takes.