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Colin Kaepernick helps 49ers withstand frantic Patriots rally on Sunday night

colin-kaepernick-376 Colin Kaepernick's four TD passes helped the 49ers get a road win and secure a playoff berth. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Only one team in NFL history -- ironically, the 1980 San Francisco 49ers -- has ever come back from a 28-point deficit to win a regular-season game. Sunday night, the 2012 version of the 49ers nearly found themselves on the other side of the ledger.

San Francisco exploded to a 31-3 lead on the road, seemingly headed for an easy and impressive victory over New England. Then, like a bolt of lightning on a cold, rainy night, the Patriots shot to life.

Danny Woodhead plunged into the end zone, then Tom Brady did the same. Shortly thereafter, Brady connected with Aaron Hernandez for another score and, finally, Woodhead crossed the goal line again.

Suddenly, 31-3 had turned into 31-31 and the 49ers found themselves on the verge of a calamitous, unexplainable defeat.

But those Saints that coughed away a four-touchdown edge 32 years ago finished the season 1-15. This 49ers team, on the other hand, is one of the best in the league, maybe even the favorite to come out of the NFC and head to the Super Bowl.

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So, where New Orleans failed, San Francisco thrived. Exactly one snap after Woodhead erased the 49ers' lead, Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree grabbed it back on a 38-yard touchdown pass.

The defense took it from there. Staggered by New England throughout the second half, the 49ers barricaded the gate with two key stops in the final six minutes to secure a 41-34 win.

"You expect a good team and a great quarterback like that to make some adjustments," San Francisco DB Donte Whitner told NBC's Michelle Tafoya. "We knew it wasn't going to be an easy game, even going to halftime up."

The Kaepernick-to-Crabtree TD stood as the game-winner, and 49ers' defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Rickey Jean-Francois followed it up with a crucial sack apiece to end New England's next drive.

The play of the game, though, the one that truly may have saved San Francisco from joining the hapless '80 Saints in the record books, came courtesy of LaMichael James. Active for just the second time all season, James took the ensuing kickoff following Woodhead's tying touchdown run and burst back 62 yards to the New England 38.

Crabtree found the end zone eight seconds later.

"LaMichael had a great return," Kaepernick said, "and (the) next play Crab beat his guy one-on-one and took it to the end zone. ...

"Brady's a great QB, that's a great offense, we knew they had the ability to (rally like) that. We just wanted to keep scoring."

In a lot of ways, winning in this fashion could prove even more valuable for the 49ers in the weeks ahead. They no doubt would have welcomed a laugher of a victory. Instead, they'll walk away from this one knowing that they went through the ringer, in the elements against a terrific team on the road, and had what it took to get the job done.

"We like playing national-televised games, we like playing big teams," Whitner said. "Nobody really gave us a chance; hopefully, we earned some respect."

Kaepernick certainly did, especially if there were any critics left doubting him heading into this one. He struggled getting the grip on a few snaps (and San Francisco fumbled six times in all, though just one resulted in a turnover), but the second-year QB also fired four touchdown passes and kept the 49ers surging in the first half.

This very nearly turned into another defining moment in Brady's illustrious career. It wound up being a colossal step forward for Kaepernick.

"He's got all the tools that you need," said Crabtree of his quarterback. "We really just go out there and play ball -- that's our attitude."

Crabtree also caught an earlier touchdown pass from Kaepernick, and Randy Moss, Delanie Walker and Frank Gore also put up scores for San Francisco. With the win the 49ers inched closer to a division title, and they can clinch next Sunday night in Seattle, in what figures to be another hard-fought contest.

The Patriots, conversely, will not find much satisfaction in turning a complete dud of a night into a mere missed opportunity. Now 10-4, they slipped from the No. 2 slot in the AFC's playoff picture to No. 3 -- the cutoff point for a first-round bye.

The comeback was thrilling for the Patriots, but their first 40 minutes or so of this game were a mess.

"We didn't do anything well enough to win," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "It starts with me -- we weren't good enough on offense, weren't good enough on defense, weren't good on special teams. We've just got to perform better than that and we didn't."

There is a lot of ground to cover before we learn if this Sunday night instant classic proves to be a Super Bowl preview. Certainly, both the 49ers and Patriots are teams to be reckoned with come the playoffs.

And San Francisco may have secured, with this win, important reassurance that, no matter how big the stage or how talented the opponent, there is enough talent around to weather the storm.

"This is something that we practice," Kaepernick said. "You have to be ready to take the lead, and you have to be ready for teams to come back."

The 1980 Saints may not have been ready for such a dramatic turn of events. Kaepernick and the 49ers were, and as a result, they managed to stave off an historic collapse.

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