Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 12/21/12
The Patriots suffered an almost unfathomable loss on Sunday night. Not that they weren’t expecting a tough test against the 49ers, or even to lose the game, but it was more so the manner in which they lost. The Patriots gave up 41 points on defense, their most since Week 4, 2009, and just looked completely overmatched against Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore and the Niners’ offensive balance. On the other side of the ball, the Patriots near record-setting offense struggled to score for much of the night, rocking just three points into the locker room at halftime and not getting their first touchdown until midway through the third quarter. At that point, New England trailed by four scores (28 points), which only complicated things. The Patriots need to find see some improvement in a few areas over the final few weeks of the season in order to feel comfortable heading into the playoffs. Brady threw for over 440 yards and accounted for two of the Patriots’ touchdowns, one on the ground and one through the air, but he also turned the ball over twice. One interception wasn’t necessarily his fault, as Aaron Hernandez let a bobbled ball end up in the 49ers’ hands, but Brady needs to better protect the football and get the offense off to a faster start than we saw against San Francisco. Stevan Ridley let go of a costly fumble — as well as another one that was overturned on review — and gained just 23 yards on nine carries. His hard-nosed running is key for the Patriots’ offensive balance, and if he can’t be trusted with the ball then there will be no such thing as balance. Over on defense, Aqib Talib struggled to cover Randy Moss early in the game, which helped the 49ers jump out to such a commanding lead. His play on the outside has been iffy, even given the pick-six in his Patriots debut, and he really needs to lock down on other teams’ No. 1 options in order to allow the rest of the defense to continue with that aggressive style. The special teams’ struggles also played a big part in Sunday’s loss. Matthew Slater, as captain of that unit, took full responsibility for the letdown and said his group was taking it as a learning opportunity. Three holding penalties on punt returns cost the Patriots 60 yards in field position, and that 62-yard kick return by LaMichael James sucked the wind right out of the Patriots’ sails. Slater needs to get his special teamers back up to par in time for the playoffs, otherwise the Patriots could be in big trouble. So, with an underwhelming performance by nearly the entire team, at least throughout most of the game, which player needs to step up most over the final two weeks of the season? Take Our Poll
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