FOXBORO -- Do you believe in these Patriots yet?
They beat the Dolphins on Sunday, 27-17, scoring 24 unanswered points, making big play after big play on defense, sacking the quarterback six times and finally putting Miami away.
The Patriots are 6-2 and you get the sense that no one believes in them yet, at least as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. For good reason, there are a lot of question marks for a team that will have its playoff ticket punched once again come December.
The Patriots were getting booed off their own field in the first half. Tom Brady was on his way to a 25-yard, Mark Sanchez-esque 16.7 quarterback rating and a 17-3 hole to the Dolphins.
"We knew we had to come out and make a better second half because that first half was brutal," Rob Gronkowski said.
The first half Sunday was hardly the first time this year when the Patriots played "brutal" football. There were the second and third quarters against Buffalo, a game in which they had to be rescued by a last-second field goal from Stephen Gostkowski. There was first quarter against Tampa Bay. The whole game against Cincinnati. The second half against the Saints. The second half against the Jets.
Point is, Sunday was no one-time sample. It's concerning that a team this good can go in prolonged slumps of execution and production. There's just no consistency. There isn't the consistency that would put the Patriots in the same discussion as 8-0 Kansas City, 7-1 Denver or even 6-2 Cincinnati. Yes, this is the midway point and they have plenty of time to get things fixed. But getting things right starts with getting No. 12 right.
The most important player in Patriots history came out with a point to prove after losing to the Jets last week.
Brady was out to prove that last week, when he threw a game-changing pick-six in the opening moments of the third quarter, was a fluke. His first throw Sunday was targeted for Gronkowski but landed in the hands of Dmitri Patterson, who undercut the underthrown pass. All of it added up to a 17-3 halftime hole to the Dolphins and a rousing chorus of boos.
"I didn't hear much," Brady said. "Truthfully, I just go off the field, and it's a long game. I know sometimes it doesn't go well in the first quarter, second quarter or the third quarter, but ultimately you have to wait until it all plays out. I wish we were doing a better job for 60 minutes, but we're not and we've still got to find a way to win. We're 6-2 and we've had two chances in the games we lost. The expectations are high. They're high for us; I'm sure they're high for our fans.
"I mean, we're 6-2. We're obviously not doing a great job in a lot of areas on offense, so we're trying to get it right. We're working at it. We're 6-2 and we've got a whole season ahead of us, but we obviously have to do a better job."
Brady has had the most inconsistent eight-game stretch to start a season in his 13-year career as starter. Despite what he would have you believe, his throwing hand looks like it lost a fight with a defensive lineman's helmet.
It's the same hand that TV cameras were fixated on last week at MetLife Stadium.
Brady and the Patriots better hope the throwing hand is the reason for the quarterback's struggles. Otherwise, whispers that Brady is getting older and less effective will grow louder and louder.
The Patriots seem like they want to give Brady every chance to keep the game in his hands. But what was obvious Sunday is that when they actually showed a true commitment to a run game, they started to produce.
The biggest play of the offensive game plan Sunday might have been Stevan Ridley's 23-yard run up the middle after Miami botched a 45-yard field goal. The Patriots were down 14 points, and in years past the Patriots would just put the ball in Brady's hands and let him work his magic.
That's not an option anymore. Brady is not himself. But Ridley, after a mysterious absence in the first quarter, has shown he's more than capable of the big play.
Ridley's run set the Patriots on their way to their first TD of the day. After a strip-sack by Logan Ryan, a fumble recovery by Rob Ninkovich and a TD run by Brandon Bolde, the game that was on the verge of being 24-3 Miami was a new game in the matter of three minutes.
"I just always say that when our coaches call our number we have to go out there and be the solid group," Ridley said. "This team is going through a lot of changes, a lot of guys in and out, but one thing that has been consistent is the running back group. We've been together since camp and we've had Shane [Vereen] that's fallen out but we've had guys that have stepped up. And I think that's the biggest thing for us is that we have to be a strong point for this team, and when they call our number we have to go out there and make solid plays."
For the first time in since losing Brady to an ACL tear in 2008, this team is not defined by Tom Brady but rather by the intangible of toughness.
"You've definitely got to play four quarters in this league," Ninkovich said. "You know there are always tough games. We're always playing against great competition, so mental toughness goes a long way, especially a division game that counts a lot in the divisional standings and stuff like that, so we had a big week of preparation here. I think we did a great job of coming in and understanding the concepts of how we wanted to play these guys and the first half [we] didn't play like we should have, and the second half we played how we wanted to play for the whole game, so we'll take it."
There's no question the Patriots are the class of a division that is filled with not-ready-for-prime-time performers. We knew that from the start of training camp. The Patriots aren't about to lose this division to the likes of the 2-5 Bills, 3-4 Dolphins or 4-4 Jets, who were obliterated 49-9 Sunday in Cincinnati.
What do we know about this 6-2 team at the midway point? The Patriots are capable of looking lost for 30 minutes before finding themselves in the nick of time.
We've seen the trend before with these Patriots. They play flat against inferior competition only to find the switch just in time. On Sunday, there was a friendly reminder from team captains that the energy level needs to be picked up.
"I think we have a lot of good players who understand what it takes, and that first half we were just all over the place," Logan Mankins said. "There were a lot of breakdowns. I know that I didn't play good enough in the first half, but luckily I played better in the second half, and I think a lot of guys did.
"It's the same as always -- come in, make adjustments, talk about what they're doing, and today we just did better in the third quarter than we had been, and thankfully we did because that first half was bad. We knew that first half wasn't the way we wanted to play or the way we should play, so we knew we had to turn it around and guys did a better job of executing and finishing. It all came together in the second half for us."
The question is how will the second half of their season prepare them for the playoffs?