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San Francisco 49ers respond, tip New England Patriots

The biggest game of the NFL season was slipping away from the San Francisco 49ers. Their 28-point lead evaporated in the blink of an eye, and their tired defense looked stunned.

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And then the 49ers responded like champions.

They survived a furious New England Patriots rally to win 41-34 in the most memorable NFL game since the "Fail Mary." The 49ers' calm and toughness with the walls crumbling down around them on the road makes this victory even more impressive than a blowout would have been.

The Patriots' fourth touchdown during an 18-minute span tied the score at 31 with 6:45 left. What happened next was the definitive stretch of the 49ers' season:

1. LaMichael James' long kickoff return, followed by a Michael Crabtree 38-yard touchdown catch: They came on successive plays. Now that's how you respond. James' return was the play of the game. (Colin Kaepernick played a smart, clean game while throwing four touchdown passes. The Alex Smith talk can stop now.)

2. The 49ers sack Tom Brady twice on the ensuing drive: Dormant for much of the second half, the 49ers' pass rush should have been gassed. The Patriots ran an incredible 92 plays on the night. Instead, San Francisco's pass rush exploded when it needed to.

3. The 49ers' defense forces the Patriots to turn over the ball on downs on their next possession: San Francisco's pass coverage was excellent most of the night. The 49ers (10-3-1) now have a much easier path to the NFC West title and a playoff bye.

These were two championship-level teams that took turns knocking each other around the ring. The Patriots' near comeback made the night memorable, but the 49ers' response was the stuff of Lombardi trophies.

"It's just an amazing feeling," Kaepernick told NFL.com's Albert Breer. "Tom Brady is someone I've always watched, someone I've always admired. So to come out here and get this win really means a lot."

No matter what situation the 49ers face the rest of the way, they rightly will believe they can pull through.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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