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FOXBORO, Mass.

Credit is due, credit as high as Mount Everest.

That game between the 49ers and Patriots was epic, historic, momentous. Choose your superlative. And choose it with joy. It was one of the best and certainly among the most interesting football games you ever will see.

Even at the end with the outcome finally clarified, the Patriots scored a field goal and were not giving an inch. There was such pride and dignity on both sides. So, give credit to both teams and give special credit to the 49ers for winning. Or was it surviving?

The Niners' task was enormous. They flew across the country and stayed in Providence, R.I. and drove to this place on the edge of nowhere and played in a hostile stadium in a freezing rain in front of fans used to winning.

They played against the Patriots who know how to negotiate an East Coast night under a dead lead sky. And they dominated for a while, dominated the Patriots who were just about the hottest team in the league after they humiliated the Houston Texans on national television six nights earlier.

From the 49ers' point of view, this became a statement game, but it wasn't the statement they thought they would make. Maybe the statement they finally made was more important than that.

This is the statement the Niners did not make, and please forgive me for referring to my notes. After the Niners went up 31-3 early in the third quarter, I wrote this: "The 49ers defined themselves as the NFC team most likely to play in the Super Bowl. That's how big, how utterly enormous their victory was."

I was going strong at this point. That's because the Niners were going strong. I continued. "The Niners crushed the Patriots. The San Francisco defense held the Patriots to three points in the first half. The Niners' defense worried and pestered Tom Brady, the closest thing to NFL royalty, made him look like a mere beginner. Before the third quarter ended, the Patriots fans were booing Brady, yes booing him.

"And the 49ers made Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez total nonfactors. Welker had been murdering the league, and the Niners' defense virtually took his name out of the game summary. I mean, who is Wes Welker?"

I continued in this vein unaware reality was about to intrude quite rudely. Who is Wes Welker, indeed?

"And the Niners' offense, such a matter of concern and controversy, was always pushing that New England defense around, shoving it backwards, putting on the pressure. Colin Kaepernick, who really is the starter — live with it — had some rough moments, fumbling a whopping four snaps, three in the first half. And he threw a pick near the Patriots' goal line early in the third quarter.

But he drove the offense — he drives it hard. And he threw a perfect TD pass to Delanie Walker in the end zone and this time Walker, who's a dropper, held on."

I could have gone on like that, gone on happily writing about the statement I thought the 49ers made, about them being the class of the NFC. But after the Niners went up 31-3, everything changed. Another football game entered Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots scored 28 unanswered points in the twinkling of an eye and tied the game, 31-31. What had been an easy game became a potential heartbreak game.

The Niners, who had looked so imperial and grand, gave away everything, seemed ready to fold. That was partly because offensive coordinator Greg Roman went conservative, calling too many runs, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took his foot off the pedal with lots of highway ahead of him.

But I believe the Niners made a statement against the Patriots, and it was more important than the cliche statement I had in mind. The statement involved the final touchdown drive which consisted of just one play, a 38-yard TD pass from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree, Kaepernick just grabbing hold of the game at the crucial moment, Kaepernick showing his grit and talent.

"Nice job by Colin," Jim Harbaugh said later. "That was not where he was supposed to go with the ball. It wasn't the intent of the play. He saw what he saw, kicked it out to Michael and Michael made a huge play."

Before I tell you the statement the Niners actually made, listen to what Harbaugh said after the game, his throat scratchy, his nose red. Imagine Harbaugh warming to his subject, starting off prosaically, then finding poetic words he never found before.

"It was a great victory," he said. "I really loved the way our team sucked it up so many times. We didn't make all the plays, but we made a lot of plays. They made plays too, but we made more."

Not bad for a coach who usually gives so little. He kept going.

"Our team now has played in a lot of big, high-pressure games," he said. "They've overcome adversity. I used to live next to a train station in Chicago. The more you hear the train, the less you hear it. I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure and big games — the more you hear it, the less you hear it, the more you feel it, the less you feel it. They came back and there was adversity and they handled it."

That Chicago train was a beautiful touch.

So, what was the real statement? The Niners showed they could beat a formidable team after they almost gagged. Overcoming the almost-choke was more important than breezing to a win. Something like that hardens the young quarterback, hardens the team. And it prepares them for the hard games of the playoffs. The value of this game had something to do with all that.

There's one more thing. What we saw Sunday night could be a Super Bowl preview. The Patriots and 49ers, so evenly matched, clearly have unfinished business with each other.

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For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.