Reading the keys: 49ers/Patriots

Niners kept pressure on Brady from start to finish

Here's how the 49ers fared in 10 keys to the game identified before their epic 41-34 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday night, an outcome that clinched a playoff berth for San Francisco and kept the Niners perched at No. 2 in the NFC playoff pecking order with two games remaining in the regular season.

Turn up the pressure on Tom Brady and keep it cranking
YES:
Brady was rocked in the back by Aldon Smith on New England's second offensive series, then Smith got to Brady again to force a third-down incompletion two plays later. That began a trend of heavy pressure on Brady throughout the first half that threw the quarterback out of rhythm along with the New England offense, which managed just 113 yards in the opening two quarters as Brady was just 10 of 19 through the air with a 40.7 passer rating. Brady had more time in the second half to mount an epic 28-point comeback, but San Francisco's pressure got to him when it counted during crunch time in the fourth quarter as Ray McDonald and Ricky Jean Francois dumped Brady for sacks in the final minutes while the Pats were attempting to mount a final last-gasp comeback. McDonald had the first multi-sack game of his career as the Niners sacked Brady three times and hit him on at least seven other occasions.

More Moss against his former team
YES:
The 49ers went right to Moss on their first offensive series, and he made a difficult 12-yard reception while getting hit by two defenders for a first down on San Francisco's third offensive play. Three plays later, Moss was burning the New England secondary to reel in a 24-yard touchdown reception from Colin Kaepernick, moving Moss to third on the NFL's all-time career receiving yards list with 15,219. That set the tone for the 49ers, who built a 31-3 lead before the Patriots could recover.

Wallop Welker in the slot
YES:
The 49ers emphatically shut down the AFC's leading receiver, who didn't record his first reception of the game until 8:38 remained in the third quarter. Carlos Rogers took Welker out of the game while San Francisco was building its huge lead, and Rogers had an interception of Brady on a deep ball that was intended for Welker. Welker finished with five receptions, but they all came in catch-up time and he never made the kind of impact to which the Patriots are accustomed – or, for that matter, needed him to make on this night. The Niners shut down Welker most of the game and his longest gain went for only 15 yards. Four of Brady's passes intended for Welker never hit their mark.

Pistol-whip the Pats
YES:
The 49ers ran out of the Pistol formation throughout the game and used it as a regular part of their offense. The 49ers rolled up 180 yards rushing with multiple players getting multiple carries out of this set with Kaepernick running the read option. It was an effective tool used by the San Francisco offense to take control of the game and build a four-touchdown lead.

Grind it out with ball-control ground game
YES:
The NFL's second-ranked rushing team never strayed away from its bread-and-butter ground game, which paid the Niners huge dividends with 180 yards rushing on 39 carries. That helped San Francisco to a final 30:13-29:47 edge in time of possession even though the Patriots ran 27 more offensive plays than the 49ers, an amazing statistic. Frank Gore led the charge with a game-high 83 yards rushing on 21 carries to set the pace, and he was a player New England never really could stop. LaMichael James complemented Gore with 31 yards on the ground and Kaepernick added 28 as the Niners kept coming at the Patriots with a diverse rushing attack that allowed them to take command and keep New England's dangerous offense off the field, particularly in the first half, when the Niners held a 17:17-12:43 edge in time of possession.

Aldon Smith vs. Nate Solder
NO:
Give this one to Solder, who after a shaky start, did a pretty good job keeping Smith off Brady and taking him out of the game. Smith beat Solder for a hard hit on Brady on New England's second offensive series, then got to Brady again two plays later to force an incompletion on third down. But Smith never got another hit on Brady and the NFL leader in sacks saw his streak of seven consecutive games with at least one sack come to an end. Smith, who had 14 sacks in San Francisco's last six games, was held without a sack for the first time in San Francisco's last six prime-time games, and he finished with just one tackle during a game in which New England ran 92 plays and Brady dropped back to pass 68 times. That means Smith had a lot of chances to get at Brady, and Solder held him off a good portion of the time.

Take the run away from New England offense
YES:
The 49ers completely stuffed New England lead back Stevan Ridley, who entered the game third among AFC rushers with 1,082 yards. The Niners pounded on Ridley and forced him into two costly fumbles, pretty much taking him out of the game as the Pats began going to backup Danny Woodhead after Ridley's second fumble. Ridley finished with just 23 yards on nine attempts, averaging 2.6 a carry. Woodhead had 32 of his 61 yards rushing in the second half, when he scored on a 6-yard run and a 1-yard run during New England's big comeback, but that was against a San Francisco defense that was protecting a big lead and allowing the Pats more room to roam on the ground. New England's ground game was a nonfactor most of the way, particularly early in the game when the 49ers were establishing control of the line of scrimmage.

Get Vernon Davis involved in passing game; let Kaepernick take his deep shots
YES:
No, the Niners didn't get Davis any more significantly involved as he finished with just one reception for 10 yards – matching his average over the previous three games exactly – though Davis was targeted two other times and got wide open behind the New England defense early in the second quarter only to have Kaepernick overthrow him by inches on what could have been a 34-yard touchdown pass. Kaepernick, however, didn't miss many other deep throws as the 49ers allowed their young quarterback to air it out by throwing long. Kaepernick had long scoring throws on two one-play San Francisco touchdown drives, finishing with touchdown passes of 24 yards to Randy Moss, 34 yards to Delanie Walker and 38 and 27 yards to Michael Crabtree for the first four-touchdown game by a San Francisco quarterback since 2003. Kaepernick also had a 26-yard completion to Frank Gore and averaged 15.4 yards per completion while throwing for 216 yards.

Get off the field on third down
YES:
New England's top-ranked offense led the NFL in third-down efficiency entering the game, but the Patriots shot an airball in the first half when they went 0 for 7 attempting to convert on third downs against a San Francisco defense that entered the game second in the league in stopping opponents on third down. It never got much better for the Patriots, who converted on just 2 of 8 third-down plays in the second half. The Patriots finished the evening completing just 13 percent (2 of 15) of their third downs, which played a big factor in the game, particularly when they couldn't convert their final three third-down tries late in the fourth quarter, forcing New England to go for it twice on fourth down on its final drive of the game.

Take away the football and win turnover battle
YES:
Playing a team that led the NFL with a plus-24 turnover differential entering the game, the 49ers turned the tables on the Patriots, forcing four turnovers that were pivotal in the outcome. The Niners intercepted Brady twice and forced Ridley to cough up two fumbles, and two of those turnovers led to San Francisco touchdowns. The Patriots had turned the ball over just 10 times the entire season entering the game, and the four turnovers matched New England's previous total for its first six home games this year. The four takeaways were a season high for the opportunistic 49ers, and both of San Francisco's giveaways came deep in New England territory, with the Patriots unable to take advantage and turn either of them into points.

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