FOXBORO, Mass. (AP)—Another poor start similar to the one the New England Patriots had Sunday could mean an early exit from the playoffs.
The Patriots lost two fumbles and Tom Brady threw an interception in the first half but beat San Francisco 21-7, giving the 49ers the top pick in this year’s draft after they matched their franchise-worst 2-14 record.
New England, a franchise-best 14-2 for the second straight season, was coming off one of its best games in a win over the New York Jets that clinched a bye and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
“There’s a lot of good teams still left in these playoffs, so we’re going to have to play a lot better than what we played today to win games in the playoffs,” said linebacker Mike Vrabel, who caught a 1-yard touchdown pass as a tight end Sunday.
The Patriots would face third-seeded Indianapolis at home if the Colts win their opening playoff game next weekend but wanted to go into the postseason on a roll.
“You can say it doesn’t mean anything but it means something to us,” Brady said.
The 49ers also plan to spend time figuring out how to get better after a season in which their two wins were in overtime against Arizona. Team owner John York said he would meet this week with general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson but gave no indications of their futures with the 49ers.
Erickson said, “I’m confident that my future is” with the 49ers.
“It was a very unacceptable season,” York said. “We’ll meet and talk about the whole season.”
At least the 49ers gave the Patriots trouble early.
Brady threw two touchdown passes after tossing an interception that went off Corey Dillon’s hands. Dillon ran for 116 yards and one touchdown but also lost a fumble. A penalty nullified Bethel Johnson’s punt return for a touchdown at the end of the 49ers’ first drive.
“Oh, man, it was a terrible start. I’m not proud of that,” Dillon said. “I just can’t start like that. I was lackadaisical.”
But Dillon spearheaded two scoring drives that put the Patriots ahead 14-7, then scored on a 6-yard run.
After the first quarter, “we settled down and played a pretty solid game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “The players deserved that for what they’ve done this year.”
The Patriots’ regular-season record of scoring first in 20 straight games ended on Ken Dorsey’s 4-yard pass to third-string tight end Steve Bush late in the first quarter. New England had scored first in 23 consecutive games, including the playoffs, but couldn’t do it against the team that began the day having allowed the most points in the NFL.
“We had a good game plan and we executed,” Dorsey said. “You have to go out and execute almost to perfection to beat a team like this.”
On Sunday, the Patriots, winners of two of the last three Super Bowls, hardly resembled the dynasty they hope to build. They struggled against a team that has plummeted from its own dynasty, when it won four Super Bowls in nine years in the 1980s.
Brady played three full quarters and was replaced by Rohan Davey on the first play of the fourth quarter with the ball at the San Francisco 14. The drive ended with the touchdown by Dillon, who earned a $375,000 bonus by rushing for more than 1,600 yards. He finished with 1,635 in his first season with New England.
“I wasn’t even thinking about that,” he said of the 29-yard run that put him over 1,600 yards. “I was thinking about not getting hit.”
Brady’s scoring pass to Vrabel tied the game at 7 at halftime. The Patriots took the lead on Brady’s 8-yard pass to Deion Branch. Dillon ran 37 yards on the first two plays of the 51-yard march.
But New England’s defense allowed a 100-yard rusher for just the third time this season as Kevan Barlow ran 25 times for 103 yards.
The 49ers lost wide receiver Cedrick Wilson with a broken left leg in the third quarter. The Patriots played without two of their best defensive players — defensive end Richard Seymour hurt his knee against the Jets and cornerback Ty Law missed his ninth straight game after breaking his foot. Both could return for the playoffs.
The Patriots scored 437 points, four fewer than the team record set in 1980. … The 49ers allowed 452 points, one fewer than the club mark set in 1999. … San Francisco gave up just one sack and finished the season with 52.