It wasn't always pretty and there were more than a few mistakes but the Patriots made Tom Brady's homecoming a happy one in San Francisco. New England's 30-17 victory over the 49ers snapped the Patriots one-game losing streak and kept them atop the AFC East.
Here are some random thoughts from the victory.
Brady's day – Tom Brady has enjoyed better days statistically but it would be tough to remember too many games in which he made more eye-popping incredible plays. He completed just 24 of 40 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, but that doesn't even begin to tell the entire story. After putting a pair of touchdowns on the board on the first two drives the offense went into a prolonged slump. Over the next 27 plays the offense managed just 112 yards and no points over the bulk of the second and third quarters. Brady evidently had enough at that point and he decided to strap the offense of his back and engineered three straight scoring drives. Ironically it was Brady's feet that did most of the work as he consistently avoided pressure, bought time and made tremendous throws on the move. He converted a third-and-nine with the Patriots clinging to a 13-10 lead by moving in the pocket before finding Malcolm Mitchell for a first down. He did so again on two other third downs and finished the drive with a magnificent improvisation in which he hit Danny Amendola for a touchdown.
New guys – The Patriots got contributions from several new players, particularly early on defense. Kyle Van Noy made his debut and was active both from a traditional linebacker spot as well as off the edge. Van Noy recorded a sack in the first half and finished with a pair of tackles. Shea McClellin, who hasn't seen much action all season, also was active and finished with three tackles. Those two rotated in for Dont'a Hightower in the first half. On offense, Mitchell had his best game of the season after seeing his playing time increase with Chris Hogan inactive due to his back injury. Mitchell finished with four catches for 98 yards including his first career touchdown, which came on a broken play from 56 yards out.
On the aggressive – Much has been made this season of the lack of aggressiveness for the Patriots defense, specifically regarding the pass rush. That changed early on in San Francisco. The Patriots sacked Colin Kaepernick five times, a couple coming when Matt Patricia dialed up some extra pressure. Patrick Chung came off the edge on the first third down attempt of the day and dropped Kaepernick for a 12-yard loss. Hightower also got free on an A-gap blitz and ran over the running back to bury Kaepernick. While the sack total was on the rise it was nice to see Patricia dial up the heat.
Rotations continue – Bill Belichick continues to search for answers on defense and rotated his personnel liberally on defense. It started with the decision to keep Jabaal Sheard home as a healthy scratch. Justin Coleman was also among the inactives after starting in the slot a week ago. That left Eric Rowe back in the mix with Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler as the corners and Trey Flowers with Rob Ninkovich at defensive end. At linebacker Belichick chose to rotate Hightower out for the third and fourth series while using McClellin, Van Noy and Elandon Roberts. Hightower's absence was noticeable, particularly when Carlos Hyde was running wild. He finished with 86 yards on 19 carries and consistently broke tackles between the tackles to chewed up yardage. After speaking on the pregame show on The Sports Hub and explaining how he felt Cyrus Jones would see some time in the secondary, Belichick chose not to give the rookie any snaps.
Lewis can't lose – Dion Lewis made his 2016 debut and looked very much like the version we saw last year. After sitting out last week following his activation from PUP, Lewis actually started against the Niners and was involved early. Lewis finished with five carries for 23 yards and added three receptions for 26 more. He wasn't quite as electric as we've seen in the past but he was able to make some tacklers miss and looked agile and confident in the first game back. Unofficially Lewis took part in 19 plays and gave the offense a lift.
To be Blount – Things got off to a great start for LeGarrette Blount and the ground game as the big back ripped off a 44-yard run on his second carry of the game. But things stagnated for a long time from there against the worst run defense in football. The Niners held him largely in check until very late in the game, but that's often when Blount does his best work. He finished with 124 yards on 19 carries for a healthy 6.5-yard average.
Late half mindset – New England led just 13-10 late in the first half and took over at their 27 with 1:48 left and a timeout. But instead of trying to move the ball into scoring position the Patriots were content to run Blount into the middle. Seemingly willing to take the ball into the half, the Patriots faced a third-and-nine and the Niners called timeout, which led to a 12-yard Lewis run that into San Francisco territory. Belichick later said the most important thing was to not give the Niners the ball back given the explosiveness of the offense and the field position it seemed like an odd decision to play it as conservatively as they did.
Struggles continue – Things got straightened out a bit in the second half but the defense once again wasn't exactly stout. In addition to the problems dealing with Hyde, Kaepernick also got heated up a bit in the second quarter. He connected on 9 of 10 passes at one point, doing damage particularly when he targeted tight end Vance McDonald. McDonald caught three passes for 46 yards and seemed to beat Devin McCourty several times. That was the case on his 18-yard touchdown catch that finished a 92-yard drive, and again on a 24-yarder down the seam in the third quarter. The Patriots safeties struggled in the game, both in run support and chasing McDonald and fellow tight end Garrett Celek (three catches, 41 yards).
Struggles continue II – Stephen Gostkowski missed his third PAT of the season, pushing his kick wide to the right following the Patriots first touchdown of the afternoon. In an interesting move, Gostkowski moved to the left hash for his final two PAT attempts and nailed them both. It was the first time in my recollection that Gostkowski chose to move the ball to a hashmark on his extra points, which is perhaps a sign of the mental struggles he's dealing with.