By Brandon Burnett
Cold, Hard Football Facts Wizard of the NFC West (@B_Burnett49er)
The San Francisco 49ers nearly blew a 31-3 lead on the road against the New England Patriots Sunday night, but returned to form in the "Kaepernick" of time to emerge victorious in Foxborough.
Colin Kaepernick threw four TD passes in the fifth start of his young career, and the Niners pulled out a 41-34 thriller on a rain-soaked night at Gillette Stadium.
San Fran's defense fell victim to effective second-half adjustments from the Pats, but a 62-yard kick return by LaMichael James and 38-yard TD pass from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree helped the 49ers reclaim the lead for good.
Had the 49ers, who allowed 31 second-half points, completed the near-disastrous collapse, Seattle would be hosting them in Week 16 with the NFC West lead on the line.
Instead, the Seahawks will host the Niners this Sunday a game and a half out of the division lead at 9-5. You wouldn't think it to be the case, considering the 'Hawks have outscored opponents 108-17 over their last two games.
At 10-3-1, the 49ers remain in sole possession of the NFC's No. 2 seed and have clinched their second playoff appearance in as many years.
Let's look at what else we learned in Week 15.
1. The 49ers slayed the AFC East in 2012, saving the kings for last. (49ers vs. Patriots)
With the Week 15 win, San Fran finished its tour of the AFC East an undefeated 4-0. The Niners outscored the Jets, Bills, Dolphins and Patriots 147-50 in those games.
This one was undoubtedly the sweetest.
New England entered having won seven straight games. The Pats finished each of their past two seasons on an eight-game winning streak and hadn't lost at home in December since 2002.
The 49ers, No. 1 in Bendability heading into Week 15, allowed 34 points on the road and still won. They did so with an inexperienced quarterback leading an offense absent of Mario Manningham, Kendall Hunter and Kyle Williams.
It helped that the defense forced four turnovers, two of them Tom Brady interceptions and the other two Stevan Ridley fumbles. The unit also limited the Pats to two third-down conversions on 15 attempts.
New England is no slouch in limiting points, though, having entered the game at No. 7 in Bendability. The Patriots held opponents to 19 points or less in each of their three previous wins, including an impressive 42-14 blowout of the Houston Texans in Week 14.
But NE's D was no match for Kaepernick, Crabtree and the 49ers. Kaepernick needed just 25 attempts to finish with 216 Yards, 4 TD, 1 INT and a passer rating of 107.7. Crabtree caught seven passes for 107 yards and two scores. The fourth-year receiver now has 301 receiving yards over his past three games and at 868 yards on the year, is just 132 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard campaign.
2. The Seahawks again leave absolutely no room for doubt. (Seahawks vs. Bills).
Clearly, Seattle is not the team it once was. And for Seahawks' fans, that's perfectly fine.
Road struggles? Not in Buffalo. Not in December. The 'Hawks have seemingly turned a corner in terms of being able to perform at their best any time and any place.
Russell Wilson is absolutely electric at quarterback and Marshawn Lynch is a freak of nature out of the backfield. Wilson threw for 205 yards and a TD, finishing with a passer rating of 104.4. More impressively, he scampered for 92 yards and three scores on the ground in the 50-17 rout.
Lynch ran for 113 yards and a TD, and he did it on just 10 carries. Both made their efforst seem, well, effortless.
Keeping in mind that Buffalo came in at No. 26 in Bendability, there was no stopping the Seahawks' offense in this one. Seattle never even punted the ball until there were 21 seconds left in the first half and the lead was 31-14.
No matter the opponent, scoring 50 points in a single NFL game should not be taken lightly. The Seahawks accomplished the feat twice in 2012 and somehow did so in consecutive games. The defense continued to contribute, forcing three turnovers, including a pick-six.
Seattle is now alone in the first wild card spot, a full game ahead of the Vikings, Cowboys, Bears and Giants. The 'Hawks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Minnesota, Dallas and Chicago.
Safe to say their playoff chances are in pretty decent shape.
Seattle beat Arizona 58-0 last week, becoming the first team since the Giants and Rams in 1950 to score 50+ in consecutive weeks.
3. If for only a week, misery has left the desert. (Lions vs. Cardinals)
It finally happened.
Just when we thought it was no longer possible, the Cardinals won a football game. Amazingly enough, they did so by the score of 38-10.
Where did this come from? Granted, the defense pitched in with two pick-sixes. But how on earth did Arizona but win by four touchdowns? Losers of nine straight, how did the Cards even outscore their opponent to begin with?
Finishing with 104 yards, no TD passes and one pick on 14 of 21 passing, rookie Ryan Lindley was hardly the answer. Beanie Wells, however, banged out 67 yards and three scores on the ground.
The Cards' averaged 3.8 yards per play on offense, which is sadly over a yard per play improvement from a week ago. Still, the team went just 2-12 on third downs and finished with a meager 198 yards of offense.
That won't cut it against most NFL teams, but it was more than enough against a strugging opponent like Detroit. The Lions have lost all direction, now losers of six straight.
Arizona is hardly on a stable path to success itself, but at least the 5-9 Cards can enjoy the death of an embarrassing nine-game slide this week.
4. Adrian Peterson and the Rams crossed paths at the worst possible time for St. Louis. (Vikings vs. Rams)
The Rams entered Week 15 with a record of 6-6-1 and an opportunity to solidify themselves as legitimate contenders for one of the NFC's two wild card spots.
That opportunity gradually vanished with each Adrian Peterson carry in the Vikings' 36-22 win over St. Louis. The NFL's best running back is hot on the trail of Erick Dickerson's single-season rushing record and the Rams' typically stout run defense proved no match in stopping him.
AP finished the day with 212 rushing yards, and St. Louis fell to 6-7-1 on the season. With two games remaining, the Rams are now all but eliminated from the playoffs. Peterson's 82-yard TD rumble set the tone in the second quarter, a fifteen minute period that the Vikings used to put 23 points on the board.
A win would have brought St. Louis within a half of a game of the NFC's final wild card spot, but Minnesota ensured that would not be the case. The Vikings actually led 30-7 at the half.
Nonetheless, it has been a season of surpassed expectations for this young team, even with no playoff appearance in sight. After a 2-14 finish in 2011, expecting a trip to the postseason for the Rams would've been outlandish, to say the least.
Take it for what it's worth, but St. Louis' first season under Jeff Fisher's lead has been a success in more ways than one.
5. Looking ahead to Week 16.
The matchup nearly everyone will be watching in Week 16 is undoubtedly San Fran and Seattle at CenturyLink Field. The NFCW won't be on the line, but the Seahawks can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a little help.
Should the 49ers win, they'll retain the No. 2 seed and capture the NFCW title for a second year in a row. Also, they would host the Cardinals in Week 17 with a chance to obtain a first-round bye in the playoffs.
St. Louis looks to move on from a discouraging Week 15 loss by traveling to Tampa to face the Bucs this coming weekend. With the playoffs all but out of sight, the Rams could benefit from a couple season-ending wins as they head into 2013.
For Arizona, it's a home game against the visiting Chicago Bears. The Bears have dropped five of six and are on the verge of slipping out of the playoff picture after a 7-1 start, so the Cards could have some fun playing spoiler in this one.