FOXBORO, Mass. — Patriots’ fans had an impressive showing on Sunday afternoon.
Yes, their fans.
Unlike the Saints game two weeks ago, most of the Foxboro faithful actually managed to stick around for the team’s come-from-behind victory. That’s not to say anyone would have blamed the Gillette Stadium crowd for leaving. There must be something better to do during the fall in New England than watch the local football team squander opportunity after opportunity, play with zero heart and loaf around the field.
But seriously, Patriots fans must have been happy they stuck it out. The team came out of the half looking like nothing was going to change after halftime. Tom Brady and the offense went three-and-out and the defense allowed the Dolphins to charge down the field. They bent, but didn’t break and Caleb Sturgis‘ field goal clanged against the right upright. That sliver of a break seemed to give New England a charge.
Brady came out on the next drive firing after Stevan Ridley ripped off a 23-yard gain. He hit Rob Gronkowski for 23 yards and a wide-open Aaron Dobson for a 14-yard touchdown.
Miami didn’t have the ball for long on their ensuing drive. After a 3-yard run by Daniel Thomas, Logan Ryan strip-sacked Ryan Tannehill and it was all over for the Dolphins.
The Patriots scored 24 unanswered points in the second half by playing Miami like opposing teams have played New England all season. And that’s basically by, well, playing well.
The more points New England scored and the more pressure the Patriots put on the Dolphins, the less Miami could run the ball and the more they were forced to pass. That pressure caused Tannehill to make mistakes and it shined a light on Miami’s glaring weakness: its pass blocking.
The Patriots wound up with six sacks, all of them coming in the second half. Ryan wound up with two and Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Dane Fletcher and Chris Jones each finished with one. Two interceptions, one each from Marquice Cole and Duron Harmon helped the Patriots close this one out.
Cole’s pick was a play you may see once in a generation. Devin McCourty charged for a pass from his free safety position intended for Mike Wallace. He overran the chance to come away with an interception himself as he was already in midair and heading for the sideline when he got a hand on it. He had the field awareness and wherewithal to knock the ball back into the field of play and toward Marquice Cole, who was also getting dangerously close to the sideline. Cole grabbed the ball, tapped both toes in play and wound up with a great pick — though the assist was much more impressive.
“Well, it was a big play,” Bill Belichick said. “There was still a lot of football left at that point, but it was a huge play. Devin went up and played the ball and Cole showed great presence on the sideline to get his feet in bounds, catch the ball and then fall out after the catch. It was tremendous awareness on his part. You don’t really coach that, you don’t drill it. It’s just an instinctive and alert play by Cole that was as good an instinctive play as I think we’ve had around here in a long time. It was just a heads up play.”
McCourty said the team practice tip drills, but never near the sideline like the play he made.
“That was all [Cole],” McCourty said. “He just screamed, ‘Try to tip it back,’ and he was able to really keep his feet in bounds and make a great play. It was a huge play in the game, [Miami was] driving, they took a shot — just making a play right there was huge.”
The Patriots were already leading 20-17 at that point in the fourth quarter, but on the next drive, New England really put the game away by taking six minutes off the clock and scoring on a three-yard run by Stevan Ridley.
So how exactly did the Patriots make such an extraordinary second-half comeback? The captains had a key message for the rest of their teammates.
“You know around here it’s simple: we’ve got to play better,” McCourty said. “We came in down at the half, and one good thing is, we have guys here that we’ve been in that situation — at home, down a couple scores — and the game is not over. Guys came in and the first thing [was], ‘Hey, we’ve got a lot of football left to be played,’ and that’s the same thing when we come in and we’re up. We know we’ve got a lot of football to be played, and the captains did a good [job], but as a team to have the mindset to come out there and to just play, that was big this week. Just play each play and each down, and try to string it together.”
Of course, having Belichick and an up-and-coming defensive coordinator like Matt Patricia helps too.
“Our coaches,” Chandler Jones said about who deserved credit for the second-half surge. “Our coaches did a great job. Matt Patricia and Coach Belichick did a good job of making adjustments, and I feel like we did a good job of listening and buying into what they had to do, had to say, and we went out and executed.”
A little bit of toughness helps too. This team has a propensity for fourth-quarter comebacks, though this one could be better described as a second-half resurgence. Another team could have folded after the half, but Belichick has clearly built a team he thinks can bounce back and win in these dire situations.
All hope for the season appeared to be lost at the half. There was talk that this Patriots team wouldn’t even make the playoffs. But now, spirits are high in New England. It’s a good thing the fans watched this one in the stands rather than having to hear it on their car radios.