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Here's hoping Patriots, Niners meet again

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 17, 2012 08:32 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- Well, sign me up for the sequel to that right now.

For much of this season -- heck, even as far back as the immediate aftermath of the disappointment in Indianapolis last February -- the recurring football wish in this space is that February 3 in New Orleans would deliver us a third Super Bowl showdown between the Patriots and the Giants.

The catharsis of getting that fourth Super Bowl victory against the franchise that has been been both lucky and good in denying the Patriots twice seemed both appropriate and reasonable.

But after Sunday night's abstract, thrilling, ultimately frustrating 41-34 loss to the ferocious San Francisco 49ers, that wish has evaporated like, oh, a 28-point lead against a ticked-off Tom Brady. And not just because the Giants don't appear, at least for the moment, capable of living up to the NFC end of the bargain.

We've found something better, just as potentially fulfilling and even more fascinating. Play it again, Patriots and Niners. Now this is the matchup I want to see in Super Bowl XLVII. You with me?

I know, I know -- one game at a time, we're getting ahead of ourselves, it's a long, difficult road just to get there, platitude, platitude, cliche, cliche, all of that. Of course. The Niners are still battling for their division title, with their biggest game of the season not the pelt they just claimed, but the one ahead Sunday night at Seattle.

(Aside: You bet I'm mystified by a football universe in which Pete Carroll has taken a turn for the ruthless, fake punting up 30 points Sunday, and the Patriots are falling behind by four touchdowns at home to anyone in December, a month in which they'd had 20 consecutive victories on their home turf.)

And as exhilarating as it was to watch Brady rally the Patriots with four unanswered touchdowns in a span of 14 minutes and 17 seconds in the second half -- the sequence, and I just know you're reading along with me from the game book at home, was Danny Woodhead touchdown run, Andy Lee punt, Brady touchdown run, Andy Lee punt, Aaron Hernandez touchdown catch, Andy Lee punt, Danny Woodhead touchdown run -- the reality is that they still lost, and a better opportunity may have been lost with it.

The Denver Broncos, winners of nine in a row and now 11-3 behind Tim Tebow's successor, you know, that Buick-pushing what's-his-name, slipped past the Patriots into the No. 2 spot in the conference standings behind the Houston Texans (12-2).

With home games against Cleveland and Kansas City ahead, the Broncos aren't losing again before the playoffs barring catastrophe, while the Texans would have to lose to the Vikings and Colts with the Patriots winning out in order to be supplanted as a top-two seed.

The loss all but assured that the Patriots will require detours through Houston and Denver to get to New Orleans. That is a gauntlet. Coming just six days after the Patriots' affirming, now-we're-rolling 42-14 destruction of the Texans, it was undeniably a frustrating step backward, and that early-season loss to the Cardinals looks worse by the week.

"They won, give them credit. I'm more worried about our team. Talk to Jim [Harbaugh] about his team. We just didn't do a good enough job,'' Belichick said. "We did some things that were all right tonight, but not enough of them. We made too many mistakes. We just did too many things that weren't good.''

It's true, and they are not difficult to pinpoint. The Niners' 7-0 lead after the first quarter felt like 17-0 so thoroughly did they dominate, and less than five minutes into the third quarter the score did jibe with their performance -- they went up 31-3 after the first of Michael Crabtree's two touchdown receptions. His second proved the winner, coming one play after a special-teams disaster -- a recurring theme -- allowed LaMichael James to return the kickoff 62 yards after the Patriots had tied it at 31-31. Crabtree's winning catch was the third one-play touchdown drive of the night for the Niners, which tells you something, and whatever it is does not reflect well on the Patriots.

What else wasn't good? Well, Stevan Ridley is getting slapped with the Fumbler label again, having coughed up the football once and nearly doing so earlier in the game, and it has to stop. They need him -- I'll always wonder if he might have made a difference against the Giants had he not been stapled to the bench for similar ball-protection infractions -- but first they need to be able to trust him.

It would have been nice, too, had the Patriots been able to recover more than just one of the Niners' six official fumbles, or had the offense not delayed its arrival until the second half.

"It was just execution.'' said Tom Brady, who surpassed 4,000 passing yards on the season, threw his 30th touchdown pass to keep his consecutive games streak with a TD throw alive at 48, and didn't seem to particularly care about any of the milestones. "It wasn't like there was a magic formula to what we were doing. We just stopped killing ourselves. We just can't turn the ball over and we can't miss plays that we have opportunities at."

There's frustration in not being able to turn the comeback into victory and more secure playoff positioning, and it would have been cool symmetry for Brady to join his boyhood hero Joe Montana as the only quarterback to rally his team from a 28-point deficit to win in the regular season. But good things, encouraging things, did occur -- Brandon Lloyd submitted his best game as a Patriot, with 10 catches for 190 yards, and don't look now but he has a decent shot at a 1,000-yard season. Woodhead proved essential in moderation yet again. Most important, the Patriots showed their competitive spirit won't be broken against an extraordinarily fast and physical opponent, even when the deficit might seem insurmountable to skeptics and couch-bound coordinators.

Man, what a game that was, an entertaining, unpredictable, no-quit-in-anyone bout between two outstanding teams. Ed Hochuli couldn't even explain some of what was going on, though did he ever try. It's a game to appreciate, even if the outcome means you can't truly enjoy it.

The reality of who the Patriots are is in the middle between what we saw last week and this one. They're not as unstoppable as they looked against the Texans, and not as inept as they were through the first half against the Niners. But their championship aspirations are real. The Niners, a damn good team, won this round, and barely.

Here's hoping there's a second six or so weeks from now. I suspect the lesson has been learned and the Patriots will show up well before halftime for that one.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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