FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Something strange happened Sunday night as the temperature dropped and pressure rose on a rainy evening at Gillette Stadium.
It was the master and his talented subjects who blinked while the upstart passer from across the country played as if he had been here and done this so many times before.
Bill Belichick and the rest of the New England Patriots came up short despite a furious second-half comeback when the coach made a questionable decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from New England's 12-yard line with 2:24 remaining . While some observers will say that New England was badly outplayed in an eventual 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers and young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, this decision was one for the ages.
Except for the fact that a similar insistence happened pretty recently. This is akin to Belichick's controversial call to go on fourth-and-2 at Indianapolis in 2009.
Like then, the Patriots failed to convert.
Like then, Belichick's answer was simple.
"It was fourth-and-1," the coach said at two different times.
In Belichick's deeply considered world of football odds and situational study, you go on fourth-and-1 when you're down seven points in that scenario. He did that despite having two timeouts and the two-minute warning available to him. He did that despite having forced the 49ers to punt on four of their previous five possessions. He did that despite the fact that San Francisco punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. had turned two previous punts into high-wire acts with one near-fumble and one actual fumble.
Belichick did that despite the fact that not making it immediately put San Francisco in range for a field goal that gave the 49ers their an insurmountable 10-point margin. Finally, he did it despite the fact that failure virtually guarantees New England will have to go to Denver for the second round of the AFC playoffs, assuming the Patriots win in the first round.
In essence, this was Belichick doing something you might expect out of Barry Switzer or Jerry Glanville, guys who severely lack his poise, knowledge and success.
Meanwhile, this was yet another chance for Kaepernick to prove that his 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh wasn't likewise playing craps with San Francisco's Super Bowl chances. As he did in a Monday night victory over Chicago in his first start and in a road game against New Orleans in his second start, Kaepernick proved to be productive way beyond his years.
Such as with 6:33 remaining in the game after Brady and the Patriots had rallied for 28 straights points to erase a 31-3 lead. Here was Kaepernick, in all of his fifth NFL start, in a similarly tough situation.
If the 49ers had lost, they would have not only relinquished control of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, they would have been in serious danger of losing control of the NFC West going into their showdown with the Seahawks in Seattle next Sunday night. Heck, the 49ers could have been looking at being knocked out of the playoffs if things really went bad.
[Winners/losers: Packers looking like smart Super Bowl pick]
So, following LaMichael James' big return to New England's 38-yard line, this was a must-score situation for San Francisco. And just to crank up the pressure a little more, the Patriots were bringing an all-out, seven-man blitz.
So dude, seriously, what were you thinking at this moment?
"This is my 17th year of football," Kaepernick said with a slight grin, as if the first 16 years of pee wee, high school, college ball and a rookie season on the bench really prepared anybody for this. "I've been playing since I was 8 years old. So, to me, I am going to go out there and I'm going to throw to the guy who is open and you try to keep football simple so your mind can be clear."
And, just like that, Kaepernick took the snap, fired a quick pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who then beat the coverage of cornerback Kyle Arrington for a pretty simple touchdown.
That ended up being the fourth and final touchdown of Kaepernick's latest effort, a career that's taking off like a Fourth of July fireworks show. His first three were more spectacular throws against coverage, but none were quite as dramatic. While the play didn't clinch the game, it set the stage for what happened later with Belichick.
Moreover, it was further proof that Kaepernick is a significant improvement over what the 49ers had in Alex Smith as the previous starter. There is still much debate in the Bay Area over Kaepernick vs. Smith, but here is an indisputable fact: In six-plus years as a starter, Smith had three games in which he led the 49ers to at least 30 points on the road. Smith also never put a 40-spot on anybody away from home.
In five games, Kaepernick has two such performances (the 49ers scored 31 points at New Orleans). And this game could have been 50 if the 49ers hadn't fumbled once inside the 10-yard line and if kicker David Akers hadn't missed a 39-yard field goal in the first half.
Bottom line, Kaepernick has been everything that Harbaugh imagined when he made the bold play to bench Smith. Part of the reason is that he has such an unusual sense of calm about him under pressure. It is not unlike what the league has seen with the likes of Brady or even Joe Montana, although Kaepernick is a way from that stage. Kaepernick has what can only be term preternatural calm.
"It is a little bit crazy, a little bit surreal, but I'm just trying to keep my head down and trying to keep it going as long as I can," he said.
Kaepernick's drew praise from at least one Patriots defender.
"He was poised, nothing fazed him, and the guys on their team rally around him," Patriots Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "He's a good leader … a good leader."
Or as San Francisco guard Alex Boone said: "Am I worried about him in those situations? Not anymore."
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