Foxboro, Mass. — Sunday night's waning minutes victory (41-34) by the San Francisco 49ers over the New England Patriots was one of the strangest rollercoaster games in National Football League history. The Patriots overcame a four-touchdown, third quarter deficit (31-3) to tie the game only to lose in the end.
But more than a big game victory slipped away from the Patriots. The loss also made the team's chances of returning to the Super Bowl a lot more difficult. If the standings stay as they are now, New England will not get a first-round bye in the playoffs and will very likely play the second round and AFC title game on the road if they progress that far. So much for homefield advantage.
The Denver Broncos, winners of nine in a row after being blitzed by the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Oct. 7, have catapulted past New England into the No. 2 AFC seed spot. Denver has two easy foes on their remaining regular season schedule — home games with Cleveland and Kansas City.
They win, they get a one week vacation and will host somebody in Denver. As the probable No. 3 seed, that “somebody” is most probably the Patriots.
And the Houston Texans, humiliated by the Patriots last Monday night (42-14), need only one win against Minnesota or Indianapolis and they get the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The Patriots, for the first time in a long time, were not prepared for a team of the caliber of San Francisco. .
The 49ers did everything the Patriots usually do: win the toss, defer, get the first touchdown, get a second touchdown and make you play catch up.
It was striking how the 49ers pushed the pace, particularly on offense, confusing the Patriots defenders, putting coach Bill Belichick's team on its heels.
“The season is not over,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who threw a record 65 passes in the game played in rain, cold and fog. “We still have two games to play.”
Brady is right. There are two games remaining: Jacksonville away and Miami at home. The Patriots will be heavily favored in both.
But San Francisco lowered New England's rising expections for another Super Bowl appearance. They have been in five, winning three and losing two, since 2001.
Maybe that’s what these Patriots needed, a little “dissing” from America to rise to the occasion.
Bill Burt is a sports writer for The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass., Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.