FOXBORO -- It was like watching a veteran boxer, one who stands flat-footed for a few rounds taking some punches, all the while using the experience to take the measure of his opponent. Then, when the moment is right, they take command.
For the third consecutive week, the Patriots took an early pounding, assessed the situation, diagnosed the problem, made the necessary adjustments and came away with the victory. On Saturday against Miami, New England dug itself a 17-0 hole at halftime, but was able to put together a near-perfect second half on the way to a 27-24 win.
“It wasn’t our best effort of the season,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “But we’ve got to give the players a lot of credit for coming back in the second half.”
Two weeks ago, the Redskins shocked slow-starting New England out of the gate, taking a 17-14 second-quarter lead. Last week, the Broncos took a 16-7 advantage and shellacked New England with an astounding 167 rushing yards in the first quarter.
But the Patriots found a way to bounce back and hold on for a victory against Washington, 34-27. They corralled the Broncos with some adjustments to their run defense, forced three second-quarter turnovers and ended up with a 41-23 win.
And on Saturday, the Dolphins dominated on both sides of the ball, sacking Tom Brady three times and forcing the Patriots to punt six times in the first half on the way to a 20-0 lead. But for the third time in as many weeks, they figured it out: New England’s slapped together offensive line found its groove when it came to pass protection, the offense got a kickstart from the no huddle and the Patriots took advantage of a couple of ill-timed turnovers from the Dolphins to post another comeback win, this one a 27-24 victory over Miami (click here for the complete recap).
Three weeks. Three remarkably similar wins, all of which showcased some extraordinary mental toughness when it mattered.
“You don’t want to, certainly, make a habit of this,” said Brady, who finished 27-for-46 for 304 yards and a touchdown.
Brady is right -- the Patriots can’t make a habit of this, especially with the postseason looming. (In the playoffs, its unlikely New England would be able to get that sort of luxury when it comes to trying to figure out an opponent.) But during a month when so many other AFC contenders are finding new and inventive ways to lose key late-season games (Houston at Indy, Pittsburgh at San Francisco, Baltimore at San Diego), if you’re a Patriots fan, it certainly beats the alternative.
“There’s nobody playing perfect football right now,” said offensive lineman Brian Waters. “So we’re no different from any other football team, outside of the fact that we’ve got an extended season that we know we have in front of us, and next week is a great opportunity for us to get even better going into that part of the season.”
Here are nine other things we learned on a Sunday where the Patriots clinched a first-round playoff bye:
WES WELKER IS AN HONEST GUY
The last three-plus years, Welker has been one of the most remarkably reliable targets in the NFL -- since the start of the 2008 season, Welker has caught 74 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. But on Saturday against the Dolphins, the wide receiver was far from his dependable self. He was targeted seven times and caught just two passes for 20 yards, including one for 16 yards, and had a couple of balls that were flat-out dropped. According to Welker, he issued a mea culpa at halftime and promised to play better in the second half. He followed through on that promise, finishing with a team-high 12 catches (on 19 targets) for 138 yards. Most of his catches were between 5 and 15 yards underneath, but did come away with a 42-yard catch deep down the left sideline on New England’s first drive of the fourth quarter. That catch helped set up the go-ahead field goal from Stephen Gostkowski, a 42-yarder with nine minutes left to give the Patriots a 20-17 lead.
By the numbers: With his 138 yards Saturday against Miami, Welker set the franchise record for most yards in a season, pushing his total to 1,518 yards. (He surpassed Randy Moss who had 1,493 yards in 2007.)
Money quote: “That was a pretty poor first half on myself. That was pretty bad. I just wanted to let (my teammates) know that that was bull on my part and in the second half, I wanted to come out and play the way we needed to play to win the game. And that’s what we were able to do. We were able to make some plays and everyone chipped in, and that’s what it’s all about and that’s how you win games. It takes a full effort from the whole team and nobody really was holding us back and I felt like in the first half, I really did that.” -- Welker on his first-half performance
DEVIN McCOURTY HAS HAD THE MOST EVENTFUL SEASON OF ANY MEMBER OF THE PATRIOTS’ DEFENSE
In the latest edition of McCourty’s star-crossed season, the second-year corner was burned on several occasions by Miami’s receiving corps. First, there was a 39-yard pass play from Matt Moore to Brian Hartline in the first quarter where McCourty was victimized. McCourty had a couple of nice pass breakups early on Brandon Marshall, but Marshall quickly got his revenge when Moore found him on a 47-yard completion down the Miami sideline early in the second quarter (at the expense of McCourty). On the next Miami drive, McCourty also got nailed with a defensive pass interference call that allow Miami to keep moving the chains. But in the end, it was all forgiven, as he hauled in his first pick of the season on the fourth play of the fourth quarter. On that ball, Moore tried to go deep down the middle for Hartline, but the ball was underthrown and McCourty came away with the pick. It has been a long and frustrating season for the Rutgers product, who has been a lightning rod for criticism at times when it comes to the play of the secondary. But that pick will make for a Merry Christmas in the McCourty household this year.
By the numbers: McCourty had four passes defensed on Saturday against the Dolphins, a career-high. He also had nine tackles (four solo), his interception and one tackle for a loss.
Money quote: “It felt pretty good. Finally got a chance to get one and reel it in, so it was a big play that helped the team out big time.” -- McCourty on his first interception of the season
THE PATRIOTS DO LOVE THE NO HUDDLE
While it was a different story in the first half -- the Patriots went no huddle on nine snaps and had next to nothing to show for it -- it was a different story down the stretch, as the used it to kick start a dormant offensive unit and keep the Dolphins on their collective heels. On New England’s first drive of the second half (an 11-play series that ended in a 45-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski), the Patriots used no-huddle on six plays. On their next scoring drive that ended in a touchdown, six of the seven plays on the drive were in the no huddle. The next drive was the same story (a seven-play drive with six plays in the no huddle). In the first drive of the fourth quarter, it was four of 10 plays. (In the final drive, the Patriots were more interesting in bleeding the clock that anything, so they went no huddle on three of 11 plays from scrimmage.) On several occasions, the Dolphins struggled to match personnel schemes with New England, and the fast pace wore down Miami in the second half.
By the numbers: In two games against the Dolphins, the Patriots have run 60 of their 152 plays from scrimmage in the no huddle.
Money quote: “It’s been a good weapon for us. I think we used it down there. We use it, it seems, like every game. I don’t think we go into every game thinking, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ If it works, we stick with it. We tried it early – we tried it in the first half [and] it didn’t work very well, but based on our personnel we thought maybe we should just stick with it and we certainly executed a lot better.” -- Brady on the success the Patriots had in the no huddle on Saturday
THE NEW ENGLAND OFFENSIVE LINE CONTINUES TO WEATHER THE STORM
The Patriots’ offensive line had itself an eventful afternoon. Left tackle Matt Light went down in warmups with an ankle injury, and New England was already without Sebastian Vollmer, who was out with foot and back problems. So the Patriots cobbled together an offensive line that had Logan Mankins move from left guard to left tackle (and make his first NFL start at the position), while Nate Solder moved from right tackle to tight end and back again throughout the first half. (Marcus Cannon was at right tackle when Solder moved to tight end.) Taking Mankins spot at left guard was Donald Thomas, who appeared overwhelmed at times in pass protection early on. Then, things went from bad to worse, as Mankins went down with what appeared to be a knee injury. At one point, the Patriots’ offensive line was entirely made up of players that didn’t start at those positions last year: right tackle Nate Solder, right guard Donald Thomas, center Dan Connolly, left guard Brian Waters and right tackle Marcus Cannon. In the end, the group was able to hang together, tighten up pass protection after a poor first half (three of the four sacks of Brady came in the first two quarters) and provide Brady with the protection necessary to submit another contest where he topped 300 yards, his 10th such outing of the season.
By the numbers: Saturday’s starting offensive line (Left tackle Logan Mankins, left guard Donald Thomas, center Dan Connolly, right guard Brian Waters, right tackle Nate Solder) was the seventh different offensive line combination to start for the Patriots this season. The only lineman to start all 15 games at the same position this season for New England has been Brian Waters.
Money quote: “They’re tough. They’re very well coached. They have a lot pride. I think they work extremely hard. Anytime you have those qualities as players and as a group you learn to fight through adversity. They’ve done that all year. Hopefully we get some guys back next week. You don’t want to certainly make a habit of this, but we did it and we overcame it against a team that was playing very well.” -- Brady on the work of the Patriots offensive line
WHEN IT COMES TO TURNOVERS FOR THE PATRIOTS THIS YEAR, IT’S MORE ABOUT QUALITY THAN QUANTITY
New England isn’t forcing turnovers at the same breakneck rate it was last season when they were +28, but when the Patriots have gotten them this season -- especially over the last three games -- they’ve made them count. There was the last-minute interception from Jerod Mayo to save the win over Washington. They forced three in the second-quarter turnovers last week against Denver. And on Saturday against the Dolphins, they turning point of the game came in the third quarter when Miami botched a center/quarterback exchange that led to a fumble, which was immediately scooped up by Vince Wilfork. The Patriots then went 38 yards on seven plays, with the culmination coming when Brady found Deion Branch on a one-yard pass play in the back of the end zone, cutting the Miami lead to 17-10 and setting the stage for New England’s comeback.
By the numbers: The Patriots are +14 in takeaways, the best total in the league. They have turned the ball over once in the last four games. (Brady’s end-zone interception against Washington.)
Money quote: “Huge, huge. We didn’t turn it over today; I thought that was important. We got turnovers. Really, the last seven games it’s been a huge key for us. It’s hard to win games when you turn it over. We were the benefactor of some good plays by our defense that I thought the offense capitalized [on] when we got those plays, when we got short fields and we did a good job getting the ball in the end zone.” -- Brady on how energizing Wilfork’s fumble recovery was for the team
ZOLTAN MESKO DESERVES TO GO TO THE PRO BOWL
The star of the first half for the Patriots was Mesko. He had six punts, and averaged a whopping 52.3 yards per boot. He put four of them inside the 20, and consistently tilted the field for New England throughout the first and second quarters. More often than not, the Patriots’ defense ended up giving back the yardage, but that should not diminish an excellent performance for the punter, whose highlight came when he boomed a 64-yarder at the end of the first quarter that ended up moving the chains from the New England 29-yard line to the Miami 18-yard line. (He is now averaging 46.4 yards per punt.) In fact, it was a good day for the Patriots’ special teamers, as Stephen Gostkowski put five of his six kickoffs into the end zone, and on his first kickoff of the second half, ended up making a touchdown-saving tackle on Miami return man Clyde Gates. (He missed a 51-yard field goal at the end of the first half, but other than that, a good day for Gostkowski and Mesko.)
By the numbers: Gostkowski’s 45-yard field goal in the third quarter moved him out of a tie with John Smith (692) into sole possession of third place on the New England all-time scoring list. He added nine points to increase his total to 701. Adam Vinatieri (1,158) is in first place followed by Gino Cappelletti (1,130).
Money quote: “It’s one of those things where it wasn’t the perfect spiral, it was kind of a fluttering one. But sometimes you just hit it and it goes and it was with the wind, so I can’t take too much credit. And then I had my gift from Santa, the one that rolled, so I’ll take that as my present.” -- Mesko on his last two punts in the first half
SHAUN ELLIS CAN STILL GIVE THE PATRIOTS VALUABLE SNAPS
The veteran defensive end was on the field for much of the afternoon, and appeared to be the big winner when it came to playing time in the wake of last week’s injury to Andre Carter. He made his presence felt early when he busted through the line and delivered a first-quarter sack of Moore. Ellis ended up with three tackles (one solo), a seven-yard sack, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hits, easily his best game in his relatively brief career in New England. As for the rest of the defense, Brandon Deaderick also got some good playing time, and delivered two tackles (both solo), as well as a 10-yard sack (his second of the season). Linebacker Jerod Mayo had a pair of sacks, while fellow LB Rob Ninkovich also had one. Defensive end Mark Anderson, who came into the game second on the team in quarterback hits and sacks, finished with a pair of quarterback hits on the afternoon, as the Patriots ended up with five sacks on the afternoon, tying their best outing of the season. (New England also had five sacks in an October loss to the Steelers, as well as the November win over the New York Jets.)
By the numbers: The Patriots have 84 quarterbacks hits on the season, an average of 5.6 hits per game. In addition, they have 38 sacks, the most for any New England defense since 2007.
Money quote: “It was just my time to step in. Again, I’m just fortunate for another opportunity. I hate that it had to come that way with Andre [Carter]. But, [I’m] playing for him and my teammates, so I just wanted to go out there and do what I could do and contribute. ... It wasn’t challenging at all. I just told myself, ‘Just be patient.’ If an opportunity will come, it will come. I only can control what I can once I get in there. Today, I was able to play a lot more and I was able to move around a lot better.” -- Ellis on his performance on Saturday
THE PATRIOTS REMAIN VULNERABLE TO TRICK PLAYS
As a scout who tracked both the Patriots and Dolphins in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game told us, New England should be on the lookout for some gadget plays. (The Patriots saw two in the last two weeks, one that worked out very well when Washington converted a pass play from wide receiver Brandon Banks for a touchdown, and a second last week in Denver were wide receiver Demaryius Thomas tried a pass play for running back Lance Ball that would have been completed if it were thrown better.) And sure enough, they got one in the second quarter when the Dolphins had a direct snap to running back Reggie Bush, who floated to his right and then tried to throw back left to quarterback Matt Moore, who was at the goal line. Ninkovich, who was in coverage on Moore, threw up his hands with his back to the play, ran into Moore and was called for defensive pass interference. Three plays later, the Dolphins punched it in from the one on a one-yard pass play from Moore to Charles Clay.
By the numbers: The call against Ninkovich was the second defensive pass interference penalty against the Patriots on the afternoon, and the seventh one called against New England on the season.
Money quote: “We just didn’t do a good job in any phase of the game in any area. I know we’re capable of more than that and the players showed that. They responded. It wasn’t perfect in the second half and we got a couple breaks, but we made a few plays on our own, so that’s good. We were able to come out on top, but we dug ourselves a big hole there.” -- Belichick on the Patriots first-half performance
THE PATRIOTS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT REGGIE BUSH
Previous to this season, it was believed that while Reggie Bush was a dynamic runner, he was the sort of back, who -- how shall we say this? -- was a bit averse to the idea of contact. But he has really come into his own nicely this season (his first in Miami) as an every-down option in the running game. Saturday against the Patriots, New England was able to prevent Bush from ripping off any big gains on he ground (his longest run of the afternoon was a 12-yard pickup late in the first quarter), but he still ran hard, helping move the chains consistently and even getting into it throughout the game with New England defenders. In the end, he ran for 113 yards in 22 carries for a very impressive 5.1 yards per carry. (It was the fourth straight game where he finished with at least 100 rushing yards.) He’s in the first year of a two-year contract with the Dolphins, and even though Miami is facing an uncertain situation with the coaching staff, if Bush ends up hanging around, he could suddenly find himself as the premier running back in the division.
By the numbers: Saturday marked the seventh game in the last nine contests where the Patriots have allowed more than four yards per carry. (The Dolphins ran for 4.3 yards per carry.)
Money quote: “He’s having a great year, he’s been playing really well for them and today he was a challenge for us, but we got it done.” -- Jerod Mayo on Bush’s performance