Depending on your perspective, the Patriots had overcome a 28-point deficit -- or the San Francisco 49ers had blown a four-touchdown lead -- to tie the score in the fourth quarter Sunday night. The comeback was classic Brady, picking apart a defense that was suddenly on its heels, reacting rather than dictating, after being so aggressive in the first half. San Francisco looked scared, and why not? The Patriots hadn't lost in December at Gillette Stadium in a decade. They hadn't lost a game in the second half of a season since 2009.
But the 49ers didn't flinch. Just the opposite. And in that moment, after a big kickoff return on special teams, followed by a big touchdown on offense followed by a big stop on defense, they made a statement. The 49ers are for real. They will be players in the postseason. There is more on their to-do list than merely winning another division title, which they can do next week at Seattle. They're poised to make a postseason run, to get back to the NFC Championship Game and, this time, to win it.
Want proof? San Francisco 41, New England 34.
The Niners are as well rounded and complete a team as there is in the National Football League. They have the NFL's No. 1 defense and an offense that is thriving after a midseason quarterback change from veteran Alex Smith to second-year pro Colin Kaepernick. So why not them? Why not now?
"We've got a huge goal, and that's to win the Super Bowl," San Francisco inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "So this win's good, but we've got to keep going."
Given all that was in play -- a swirling rain on a cold night 3,000 miles from home against Brady and Bill Belichick and a poised team that thrives in big games -- this might have been the most impressive win by any team all season.
The Niners had every reason to fold. So much of football is about momentum, and midway through the third quarter, trailing 31-3, the Patriots snatched it away. It was as if the first half of three-and-out possessions and turnovers for New England had never happened. In four consecutive drives, New England's offense went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown while the defense allowed two first downs and 19 yards of offense.
It was 31-31 with just less than six minutes to play, and the prevailing sentiment wasn't whether New England would go on to win, but by how much? One touchdown? Two? Maybe more?
But San Francisco got a gut check. When backup returner LaMichael James lined up deep to return New England's kickoff, all he thought was that his team needed "a boost," and he needed to put them "in a position to score," James said. Then he thought, "Follow Delanie." The Niners' big tight end, Delanie Walker, provided a path up the left sideline, and James raced 62 yards to the New England 38-yard line.
Then wide receiver Michael Crabtree told Kaepernick: "Put the ball up," so Crabtree could make a play. Kaepernick abandoned the play that was called, and threw a pass to Crabtree that was low. Crabtree scooped up the ball at the 32-yard line and ran into the end zone untouched for a 38-31 lead.
"I have to take advantage of everything they're giving me," Crabtree said. "I have to make it happen. I just took it. Anything can happen. Kaep trusted me."
Then the defense, which couldn't buy a stop, got not one but two, allowing 22 yards on two possessions and forcing New England to punt twice. They had bent, but they did not break.
"We're a good defense, and good defenses always, they might have their ups and downs but they always get back to football," outside linebacker Aldon Smith said. "They always get back to good football. We know how to get stops. We know how to play good defense, and we were able to come out there and do it tonight."
"We're a good defense," Smith said. "We believe in each other."
All the players believe in each other. There was no crowing after beating the Patriots. There was subdued satisfaction and talk of the "fight" within the players, within the locker room. The 49ers expected to leave Gillette Stadium with a win, and they did, even if it was tougher than maybe it should have been, given the score midway through the third quarter.
Or maybe it was as it needed to be. San Francisco dug deep on the road with their second-year quarterback making plays and responded to adversity against one of the best teams in the league. The Niners proved something, if to no one other than themselves. They can do this.
"I used to live next to a train station in Chicago," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said afterward. "It's like the more you hear the train, the less you hear it. I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure in big games. The more you hear it, the less you hear it. The more you feel it, the less you feel it. So I feel good about that. I feel good about our team in those big-game situations."
A lesser team would have cracked under the pressure of the moment. But if we've learned anything about the Niners, it is that they aren't a lesser team. Far from it.