When the Patriots ran:
The 49ers entered the game with the worst run defense in football but for three and a half quarters it didn't look that way. LeGarrette Blount ripped off a 44-yard run on his second carry of the game, but even with that huge play he had just 64 yards on 12 carries and three efficient runs (4 yards or more, first down, touchdown) with nine minutes left in the game. With the Patriots comfortably ahead 27-10, he then turned out the lights with 59 yards on his final seven carries to run out the clock. He finished with 123 yards on 19 attempts for a healthy 6.5-yard average. He failed to reach the end zone but he got the job done on a rainy day. The Patriots finished with 30 carries for 171 yards, which included five attempts for 23 yards for Dion Lewis in his return. The 5.7-yarda average was an impressive total and provided some balance on an uneven day for the offense.
When the Patriots passed:
New England earned this advantage for one reason only: Tom Brady. For most of the day the Niners defense surprisingly had the upper hand in this matchup. The front applied pressure on Brady and the secondary constantly forced Brady to search for an open receiver. He completed just 60 percent of his passes, a season low. But this is Brady, after all, and he once again put on a clinic. Despite having to move around the pocket several times, he managed to make a series of incredible throws in the fourth quarter that finally allowed the Patriots to stretch their tenuous 13-10 lead. He hit 24 of 40 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, and he was never better than on the drive that started at the end of the third quarter and ended early in the fourth that extended the lead to 10. He hit Malcolm Mitchell for 21 yards on third-and-nine after avoiding a sack, then found Julian Edelman for 13 on third-and-two. Both plays should have been sacks but Brady's brilliance wouldn't let that happen. On the next drive Brady again played the role of Houdini and barely squeezed off a pass to Mitchell that resulted in a 56-yard touchdown. Mitchell had a strong day with four catches for 98 yards, but Edelman caught only eight of the 17 passes thrown his way for 72 yards. The receivers struggled to make plays without Rob Gronkowski but Brady overcame it almost by himself.
When the 49ers ran:
Carlos Hyde entered the game averaging just 3.6 yards per carry but the Patriots couldn't stop him. He carved up the middle of the New England front consistently, churning out 86 yards on 19 carries (4.6-yard average). The numbers are even more impressive considering his longest rush went for just 13 yards, meaning he consistently found running room every time he touched it. The problem for San Francisco was the scoreboard, where it trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter and took Hyde out of the equation. But linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin struggled filling gaps behind tackles Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and Vincent Valentine. Valentine was the only one of that group to make any plays, most notably when he dropped Hyde for a 4-yard loss on the goal line in the first quarter. But other than that the run defense continued to be a growing concern for a sagging Patriots unit.
When the 49ers passed:
The Patriots get a slight edge here only thanks to a bad third quarter for Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense. Prior to that the ball barely touched the ground. Kaepernick was 8-for-9 for 116 yards and a touchdown in the first half and the one incompletion was a Quinton Patton drop. But after hitting two of his first three attempts for 28 yards in the second half, Kaepernick went cold. He hit on just 8 of his last 18 attempts and the Niners offense was unable to overcome the Patriots slim 13-10 lead. Logan Ryan had a strong third quarter with a pair of pass breakups and Malcolm Butler once again had a solid effort. They combined to blank Jeremy Kerley, who was the Niners lone threat at wide receiver. Tight ends were a problem for Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. Vance McDonald had three catches for 46 yards and a touchdown while Garrett Celek added three more for 41 yards. Both were consistently open when Kaepernick was accurate enough to get them the ball, but that didn't happen often in the second half.
It was another mixed bag day for the Patriots special teams. Danny Amendola gave the group a boost with a 30-yard punt return on his first attempt of the day to set up a touchdown. But he later made a dangerous decision to make a sliding catch in the run and was fortunate to recover his muffed punt. And Stephen Gostkowski once again pushed a PAT wide to the right. He made an adjustment later when he opted to kick his last two PATs from the left hash and connected. Ryan Allen had an uncharacteristic touchback, and had another kick sail out of bounds at the Niners 39 after travelling just 33 yards. San Francisco's Bradley Pinion struggled, averaging just 41.6 yards on his eight punts and failed to pin any of them inside the 20. Neither side generated anything on kickoff returns, and Cyrus Jones handled the final three punts (two fair catches) without incident.