What it means: The 49ers clinched a playoff berth by improving to 10-3-1 with a critical road victory. They can win the NFC West title by winning one of their final two games, either at Seattle or against Arizona. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw an interception and had trouble with center exchanges, but his four touchdown passes played a leading role in the 49ers' victory. The 49ers' ability to strike quickly after blowing a 31-3 lead just might have saved their season.
What I liked: Kaepernick's early 24-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss gave the 49ers some margin for error on a night when wet conditions made it tougher to operate efficiently. Michael Crabtree topped 100 yards receiving. His 38-yard touchdown catch with 6:25 remaining broke a 31-31 tie and ended a streak of 28 consecutive points by the Patriots.
Kaepernick's four touchdown passes exceeded by one his total for the season before Sunday. The man he replaced, Alex Smith, never tossed more than three scoring passes in a game since San Francisco drafted him first overall in 2005. Kaepernick completed 14 of 25 passes for 216 yards with four touchdowns, one pick and a 107.7 NFL passer rating.
Defensively, Aldon Smith got pressure on Tom Brady early in the game. Ray McDonald had two sacks. He and Ricky Jean-Francois had sacks on consecutive fourth-quarter plays as the 49ers made a key stop while holding a 38-31 lead. Aldon Smith and Carlos Rogers each had an interception off Brady, who entered the game with only four all season.
Donte Whitner's big hit on Stevan Ridley forced out the football and set up Dashon Goldson's return deep into Patriots territory. Rogers played well against Patriots receiver Wes Welker, one key to building that 31-3 lead.
On special teams, Andy Lee changed field position significantly with a 64-yard punt in the fourth quarter. Rookie LaMichael James' 66-yard kickoff return following the Patriots' tying touchdown put the 49ers in position for Crabtree's go-ahead scoring reception. Lee pinned the Patriots at their 3-yard line in the final three minutes. His late punts proved critical as the 49ers scrambled to hold their lead without injured defensive end Justin Smith.
What I didn't like: The repeated problems with center exchanges had to be maddening for the 49ers. Those troubles could have cost San Francisco the victory. Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork was extremely disruptive on the interior. That was probably one reason Kaepernick and center Jonathan Goodwin had so much trouble.
Rogers' interception was terrific, but he failed to reach the end zone when Brady tackled him. That cost the 49ers points.
Kaepernick threw an interception on a first-and-5 play when he apparently did not see safety Devin McCourty closing from the back side of the play. The 49ers had driven from their own 30-yard line to the New England 33 on their first drive of the second half. They held a 17-3 lead and were in prime position to get more points. Fortunately for the 49ers, their defense produced Goldson's fumble return on the Patriots' ensuing possession.
Cornerback Chris Culliver gave up a 53-yard pass reception as the Patriots rallied in the fourth quarter.
Questions for Ginn: 49ers return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. nearly muffed a punt in the first half when he came dangerously close to touching a loose ball. He muffed a fourth-quarter punt return and was able to dive on the ball. The 49ers cannot tolerate those sorts of miscues given the similar troubles that cost them in the NFC title game last season. Perhaps the wet conditions were a factor. Whatever the case, the 49ers need Ginn to get back to his former sure-handed ways.
West takes Pats: The NFC West finished the 2012 season with a 3-1 record against the Patriots, including 2-0 at Gillette Stadium. Brady threw four touchdown passes with five picks in defeats to San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle. He attempted 65 passes Sunday and had a 68.9 NFL passer rating.
Injury concerns: Justin Smith tried to return from an elbow injury, but he lasted just one play and could not finish the game. Smith is one of the 49ers' most important players. That injury will be one to monitor closely as the 49ers prepare for Seattle.
What's next: The 49ers visit the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16.