FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On one play, it looked as if Tom Brady's upper torso was forcibly bent in one direction, his lower in another. It was San Francisco's Aldon Smith with the hit. He would be one of many 49ers to hit Brady.
"All night, Brady," Smith said at one point to the quarterback, according to 49ers players.
Brady ignored him and on another play, Brady was grabbed and thrown to the ground, like a toddler tossing his Elmo doll into the crib. It happened so quickly that when Brady got up, he looked genuinely stunned, as in ... where in the hell did that guy come from?
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"All night, Brady," Smith said a second time, 49ers players said.
No, it wasn't all night, just most of it, as a battered Brady led one of the great comebacks of the regular season, in one of the craziest games you'll ever see. If this 41-34 San Francisco win over New England was a Super Bowl preview then the Super Bowl will be one hell of a show.
The 49ers won because they were able to turn much of this game into a street fight against an offense that likes to ballroom dance.
Brady gave the 49ers credit but said, "We spotted them 28 points." He added: "First half was a terrible first half."
"A lot of bad football," said New England's Wes Welker.
The truth is, because of that 49ers' defense, the first half score could have been much worse for the Patriots. If the 49ers offense had taken advantage of the defensive stops a 17-3 first half 49ers lead could have easily been 30-3.
The game went like this: Outstanding 49ers defense for about three quarters. Brilliant Brady comeback late. Game-clinching touchdown pass by Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco defensive stand late in the game bringing it full circle.
San Francisco clinched a playoff spot with the victory and a Texans win against Minnesota next week means the Texans would clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The symbolism of a late San Francisco great defensive play could not be starker. It was 38-31 San Francisco with Brady driving. Defensive lineman Ray McDonald had his helmet ripped off by a Patriots lineman as he was sacking Brady. That play was followed by another 49ers sack and Patriots punt.
New England got the ball back with 2:55 left in the game, at its own four, and holding two timeouts. The 49ers forced a four and out. Game over.
"It felt like a playoff game," said 49ers tackle Joe Staley.
This will sound strange to say about a defense that gave up 34 points but this was a dominant San Francisco defensive performance. The 49ers rattled Brady early, then outlasted the inevitable comeback, as Brady picked his jaw and battered body off the turf, and played brilliantly in the fourth quarter.
This is a Patriots team that again scored 500 points in a season, doing so for the fourth time, a first in the history of football. The Patriots are also so good offensively that their comeback almost made history. The only team in league history to come back from 28 points and win in a regular season game was San Francisco in 1980 against New Orleans.
The 49ers created fumbles and havoc and most importantly, they seemed to create doubt inside the mind of Brady early on, and it was this that allowed San Francisco to build such a huge lead. Since Brady is a Hall of Famer, he'd recover, and the Patriots made a run at San Francisco, closing a 31-3 third quarter lead to 31-10 at the end of three, then 31-24 into the fourth, and tying the contest at 31 later. The defense was so outstanding early it built enough capital and Kaepernick made a nice play near the end to do his part throwing a second score to Michael Crabtree.
The 49ers, with the help of a steady, chilling rain, were able to turn this game into a brutish slugfest, especially early. The hitting by the 49ers was ferocious and beautiful. This swishy, nasty concoction of a contest -- including the mouthy and confusing explanations of Captain Biceps himself, referee Ed Hochuli -- is exactly what Jim Harbaugh wanted.
Harbaugh got it with four New England turnovers (matching the number the Patriots had total at home all year), three sacks of Brady, countless hits on him, and a Hochuli punt/fumble/challenge/ball position fiasco that slowed an already slow game to a crawl. Again, what the 49ers wanted.
This Brady stat-line says a great deal. He threw 65 times, completing 36 for 443 yards. But he tossed just one score, was picked off twice and finished with a Mark Sanchez-like 68.9 passer rating. Kaepernick threw four touchdowns and had a 107.7 rating.
Every quarterback hates to get hit but there's no question that when Brady does the entire Patriots offense changes. He looks to get rid of the ball faster and dumps off more. The entire New England offense looks discombobulated when Brady gets battered and when playing a fast, beasty defense like San Francisco's, things are only worse.
Both San Francisco lines played well. The 49ers' offensive line dominated New England's like it has rarely ever been, rushing for 142 yards in the first half. If Vince Wilfork was driven backwards any faster, he'd have time traveled.
The Patriots lost for the first time in December in 21 games. They were in the middle of a seven-game win streak. Then the 49ers came to town. More specifically, that defense did.