FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was a reminder of just how quickly things can change in the NFL. After sailing through the last few weeks of the regular season, adding to an NFL-best plus-24 turnover differential along the way, the New England Patriots faltered on Sunday night.
Playing in cold, rainy conditions, the Patriots' pair of second-year running backs, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, both coughed up the ball to the San Francisco 49ersdefense, making the task of beating the NFL's best defense even more challenging.
After the game, Ridley acknowledged that the weather may have played a part in his fumble, but made it clear he wasn't trying to make excuses.
"It was tough (to hold onto the ball), but good players make it through that without mistakes," Ridley said. "That's something I didn't do tonight."
"We didn't do a good job of taking care of the ball," coach Bill Belichick said.
But Ridley and Vereen weren't alone in their miscues. The Patriots' offense turned the ball over four times, with quarterback Tom Brady throwing two interceptions. The last time Brady threw two picks? It was the last time the Patriots lost, on Oct. 14 against the Seattle Seahawks.
"We were turning the ball over," Brady said. "To turn the ball over and give them a chance to score, which is pretty much what we did the entire first half, we just didn't give ourselves a chance."
The mistakes extended to special teams as well, with the 49ers responding to the Patriots' game-tying score, which capped a comeback from a 31-3 deficit, with a 62-yard kick return by LaMichael James. When the Patriots were trying to claw back, they committed penalties on back-to-back punt returns that forced their offense to start within its own 10-yard line, stalling the comeback.
Last season, the Patriots had four turnovers in three games, two of which were losses. They turned that trend around to make it to Super Bowl XLVI, but just two seasons earlier, a four-turnover game abruptly ended their season in the first round of the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens.
For the Patriots, Sunday's performance should serve as a wake-up call that the playoffs are nearing, and not taking care of the ball will be a recipe for an earlier-than-expected exit.
"We've got to fix our mistakes, starting with me," Ridley said. "You can make excuses, or (you can) man up and say 'We messed up.' And that's what we did today."