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San Francisco 49ers prove mettle against New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Wearing his mechanic-style, team-issued work shirt -- with his surname stitched on a patch over his heart -- Aldon Smith sheepishly smiled like the 23-year-old he is at the question of whether or not the San Francisco 49ers made a resounding statement on Sunday night.

"You think we did?" he responded to the questioner, before getting a "yes" back.

"I do, too," he continued.

In asking before answering, Smith provided insight into the psyche that the 49ers had carried into their showdown with the vaunted New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Six days prior, New England had crushed a Houston Texans team that was hoping to turn Monday Night Football into its own coming out party as an NFL powerhouse.

This time around, it was the Niners who spent the run-up to game day hearing about what a juggernaut they were about to face. As the Patriots had done against Houston, the Niners built an enormous lead. But unlike the Texans, New England wouldn't go away. When the Patriots' frantic comeback bid fell short, though, plenty more was proven about the mettle of the 49ers, 41-34 victors here on a rainy, cold, crappy Foxborough night.

The statement the Niners made, according to Smith, was: "We're a team that, if people don't take us seriously, they should take us seriously. We rise to the occasion. And no matter what the circumstances are, we fight hard."

The circumstances were what made this one different, and divine, for a Niners group that has been a bear to deal with for everyone since the minute Jim Harbaugh walked in the door.

There was the aforementioned weather. There was the juncture at which they were facing the Patriots, maybe the hottest team in the league over the past month.

Then there was the game itself.

The 49ers fumbled away a possession that started at the Patriots' 5 (courtesy of a Carlos Rogers pick). They missed a 39-yard field-goal try. Colin Kaepernick just missed a wide-open Vernon Davis for a touchdown. And those 17 potential points were flushed in the first quarter alone. San Francisco did wind up building a four-touchdown lead ... only to let it melt in the icy rain of Southeastern Massachusetts.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Niners came away with a win.

"We for sure made a statement," safety Dashon Goldson told me. "Think about it. They didn't pick us to win this game all week. And we came into their home, under their circumstances, the weather, and we did good. We played well as a football team; defense did a good job, we got turnovers on (Tom) Brady. Give credit to them -- they played a hard game, came back and scored 28 points. Credit to those guys, but (we) did what we had to coming into this game, and we came out on top."

The imperfection of the effort marked its relevance above the other nine wins the 2012 Niners have notched.

After dominating Brady in the first half, San Francisco's powerful defense slumped badly, yielding touchdowns on four consecutive Patriot possessions, with New England facing a grand total of four third downs during that stretch. The 49ers' offense simultaneously disappeared, picking up just one first down in that time. This compounded San Francisco's problem, contributing to the Patriots' momentum and leaving the Niners' defense gassed and with no time to catch its breath.

The message was different in each huddle. Kaepernick simply told the offense that someone had to make a play. The defensive leaders imparted the message that the Niners "are made for this."

But the effect (and result) was much the same. After a 62-yard kick return by LaMichael James, Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree in the flat to his left, and Crabtree shook Pats cornerback Kyle Arrington before sprinting 38 yards to the end zone. The defense sacked Brady twice on the next possession, then forced a four-play turnover on downs in the Patriots' last meaningful turn with the ball.

"We let everybody know, we're gonna keep fighting. We're gonna fight, we're gonna fight," Frank Gore said, after 83 hard yards on 21 carries. "We came in here knowing it was gonna be tough. Patriots were coming off a great win last week. They were high and mighty. And we just kept fighting."

It leaves the Niners with an even more important game this week in Seattle. A loss to the Seattle Seahawks there would undo a lot of the good done here, and San Francisco knows that.

But this team has been through plenty to get to where it's at, including a highly unconventional midseason quarterback change. And the Niners are still standing. This year hasn't been quite the same as last year, when San Francisco shocked the football world by going 13-3 after eight years without a winning record. In the 2012 campaign, more is expected of the 49ers. And as a result, they expect more of themselves.

"There's a lot of stuff that's different, just because we got so far and lost in the NFC Championship Game," tight end Delanie Walker said. "We don't want that to happen this year. So guys are playing with more poise and more energy, and you can see it out there."

The poise helped them withstand the Patriots' 28-point barrage. The energy showed in how they outlasted New England when it mattered most.

And yes, the Niners made a statement on Sunday. But it wasn't so much about the number of people -- which they perceived to be low -- who thought they could win here.

It was more about who might be most equipped to get to February.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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