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49ers hold off Patriots’ second-half rally, clinch berth in NFC Playoffs with 41-34 win

Colin Kaepernick out-dueled Tom Brady on Sunday night (Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick tossed four touchdown passes as the San Francisco 49ers held off a furious second-half comeback to beat the New England Patriots 41-34 in a fumble-filled affair at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night.

The 49ers defense forced Tom Brady and the Patriots to go three-and-out on the opening possession and Kaepernick immediately jumped on New England's defense. The 2011 second-round pick out of Nevada completed 4 of 5 pass attempts for 60 yards as the 49ers drove 63 yards in just six plays with Kaepernick hitting former Patriots receiver Randy Moss for a 24-yard touchdown.

Turnovers from both teams were the story of the first quarter. Brady was intercepted by 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers, who returned the ball 53 yards to the Patriots' 5-yard line. Two plays later, Kaepernick dumped the ball off to No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker, who had the ball jarred out of his hands by safety Steve Gregory, with Aqib Talib recovering the loose ball. New England would return the favor later in the period when backup running back Shane Vereen was stripped by linebacker NaVorro Bowman and cornerback Chris Culliver recovering the ball at the Patriots' 34-yard line. San Francisco could not take advantage of the excellent field position as Kaepernick would fumble the snap when the 49ers were attempting to convert a fourth-and-1 play.

Following a 32-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, Kaepernick would again lead the 49ers on a quick touchdown drive that began with Talib being flagged for a 35-yard pass interference penalty and end with Kaepernick finding a wide open Walker for a 34-yard score midway through the second quarter. The 49ers would add a 20-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to take a 17-3 lead into the break.

Kaepernick would make a big mistake on the 49ers' opening possession of the third quarter, attempting to squeeze the ball into Moss, who was bracketed by Patriots safeties Gregory and Devin McCourty, who stepped in front of the under thrown pass to intercept the ball in the end zone. The Patriots appeared poised to begin chipping into the 49ers' lead, quickly marching down to San Francisco's 40-yard line before running back Stevan Ridley fumbled at the end of a 9-yard catch-and-run. Ball security has been an issue for Ridley, which came to the surface on Sunday night as 49ers safety Donte Whitner buried his helmet into Ridley's right hand, knocking the ball into the air and, ultimately, the arms of Dashon Goldson, who nearly scored a touchdown on the return, bringing the ball down to the Patriots' 6-yard line.

In yet another example of fumble luck, on the following play, one of Kaepernick's four fumbles on the night -- none of which would be recovered by the Patriots -- was scooped up by running back Frank Gore, who ran into the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown. New England's next possession quickly ended with a turnover as Brady's pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez was intercepted by outside linebacker Aldon Smith. As was the case after Ridley's fumble, the 49ers would score quickly as Kaepernick delivered a pass, measured at 60.4 mph by NBC, to Crabtree for a 27-yard touchdown that extended the 49ers' lead to 31-3 with over 10 minutes to play in the third quarter.

New England would not go down quietly.

The Patriots used their no huddle offense to drive 73 yards in 13 plays over 4 minutes, 22 seconds before versatile play-maker Danny Woodhead ran the ball into the end zone from 6 yards out to trim the 49ers' lead to 31-10. Brady would get the Patriots closer when he called his own number from 1-yard out on a fourth down play to open the fourth quarter. New England's defense forced the 49ers to go three-and-out and Brady would lead the offense on a six-play, 66-yard drive that included a 15-yard catch-and-run by Wes Welker on a fourth-and-2 play and a questionable 38-yard pass interference penalty on 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown before Brady hit Hernandez for a 5-yard touchdown.

New England's defense again did its part as Rob Ninkovich beat left tackle Joe Staley with an inside move and anticipated a spin move from Kaepernick to drop the quarterback for a sack and a 13-yard loss. Taking over at their own 8-yard line, Brady would flip the field. Noticing man coverage on the perimeter, Brady hit Brandon Lloyd down the right sideline for a 53-yard gain. Four plays later, Woodhead would score his second rushing touchdown of the game as Brady quick-counted the 49ers defense from the 1-yard line. An extra point from Gostkowski would officially erase the Patriots' 28-point second-half deficit.

Any sense that in-game momentum is real would be erased when 49ers kick returner LaMichael James would field the ensuing kick at his own goal line and return it 62 yards to the Patriots' 38-yard line. On the next play, Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a quick hitch, with the fourth-year receiver easily breaking Kyle Arrington's attempted tackle and running into the end zone, quieting the crowd and putting the 49ers back on top, 38-31 with just over six minutes remaining.

San Francisco's defense would stiffen, forcing a punt and then a turnover on downs on New England's next two possessions. On the turnover on downs, the Patriots attempted to convert a fourth-and-2 from their own 12-yard line, even though they had two timeouts and the two-minute warning remaining. The 49ers would add a 28-yard field goal by David Akers to extend their lead to 10 points just after the two-minute warning. The Patriots would cut the lead to seven points on a 41-yard field goal, but Gostkowski's onside kick attempt was recovered by Walker, ending the threat.

The 49ers improve to 10-3-1 and clinched a spot in the NFC playoffs with the win. Jim Harbaugh & Co. will be back on the road next Sunday night when they face the Seattle Seahawks in a game that could decide the NFC West. If the 49ers win either of their two remaining games -- at Seattle, home against the Arizona Cardinals -- they will win a second straight NFC West title. With the loss, the Patriots are now 10-4 and the 2012 AFC East champions are currently the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs behind the 12-2 Houston Texans and 11-3 Denver Broncos, both of whom are in control of their own destinies for the two first-round byes.

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