|Francona Wins Big in Return to Fenway||Connelly’s Top Ten: Rask Falls on Face||Bruins Lose 4-3 in OT as Rangers Fight to Stay Alive||For the Bulletin Board: Lundqvist’s “Lucky Bounces,” Savard’s “#ByeByeTorts”|
The New England Patriots took every punch the Miami Dolphins threw at them in the first half of Sunday afternoon’s game at Gillette.
In the second half, the Patriots came out swinging, and the Dolphins went down for the count.
The Patriots scored 27 points in the second half, overcoming a 17-point deficit to beat the Dolphins, 27-24, and clinch a first-round playoff bye.
The Patriots entered halftime down 17-0, dispirited and disheveled. Missing Matt Light and losing Logan Mankins early in the game, the Patriots’ offensive line had crumbled under the Dolphins’ pass-rushing onslaught, leading to three sacks. Tom Brady could never sit comfortably in the pocket, completely derailing the passing game.
The Patriots went three-and-out four times in the first half, and Stephen Gostkowski badly missed a 51-yard field goal attempt in the waning seconds before halftime.
Whatever Bill Belichick said to his team, they exited the locker room with renewed energy and resolve. Brady began the second half with an 11-play drive – highlighted by a 15-yarder to Chad Ochocinco – that ended with a 45-yard field goal and put the Patriots on the board.
Three plays after the ensuing kickoff, Dolphins QB Matt Moore mishandled the snap, and Vince Wilfork pounced on the fumble. The Patriots took over at the Dolphins 38, and Brady split his passes between Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez to get to the 3.
On third-and-goal from 2, Brady evaded the pass-rush long enough to float a pass to Deion Branch in the back of the end zone, cutting the deficit to just a touchdown.
The defense then stepped up again, forcing a Dolphins three-and-out and getting the suddenly well-protected Brady the ball at the Dolphins 41. The Patriots easily reached the 13, and two runs by Stevan Ridley put the Patriots at the 1. Brady then QB-sneaked the ball in, and a successful point-after tied the game 17-17.
The Dolphins put a decent run together following the touchdown, but that ended when Devin McCourty picked off an under-thrown pass to Brian Hartline at the New England 2. Brady then orchestrated a 79-yard drive – highlighted by a perfect 42-yard strike to Welker – that ended in a 42-yard field goal that put the Patriots ahead midway through the fourth. Welker finished the game with a team-leading 12 catches for 138 yards.
A second Brady rushing touchdown later put the Patriots up 27-17. Brady finished 27-for-46 for 304 yards and a touchdown pass, completing 74.1 percent of his second-half passes. His three rushing touchdowns this season are the most in any single season of his career.
Following Brady’s second touchdown run, the Dolphins took over with just under three minutes left in the game. Defensive plays by Dane Fletcher and McCourty forced the Dolphins into a third-and-10 from their 20, but Bill Belichick curiously elected to send an all-out blitz at Moore on third down.
Moore had already completed two passes for thirty yards or more, and the blitz left leading-receiver Brandon Marshall in one-on-one coverage with McCourty. Marshall easily slipped by McCourty, and Moore connected with Marshall for a 41-yard gain. Marshall finished the game with seven catches for a game-high 156 yards, plus a second-quarter touchdown pass that put the Dolphins up 10-0.
Four plays later, Moore connected with Davone Bess for a 15-yard touchdown that cut New England’s lead to 27-24.
With three timeouts and 1:48 left in the game, Miami chose not to try an onside kick. Brady took over at the New England 20, scrambling for 5 yards, then handing off to Ridley for no gain, and in the process burning two Miami timeouts.
Facing third-and-5 from the New England 25, the Patriots opted to pass one more time. Brady didn’t disappoint, connecting with Welker on a 6-yard pass that moved the chains.
Stevan Ridley unnecessarily rushed once more for 18 yards – bringing his total to 64 – before the Patriots knelt twice to end the game.
The Dolphins did everything possible to win in the first half, but – as well-coached teams often do – the Patriots just adjusted at halftime. The Dolphins remain win-less at Gillette in December, while the Patriots can lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating the Buffalo Bills next Sunday.
Tags: Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Marshall, brian hartline, Chad Ochocinco, Dane Fletcher, Davone Bess, Deion Branch, Devin McCourty, Logan Mankins, Matt Light, Matt Moore, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, nfl week 16, Stephen Gostkowski, Stevan Ridley, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Wes Welker