The Patriots trailed 17-0 and weren't doing anything right. The offense had four three-and-outs because the line couldn't block, Tom Brady couldn't find his rhythm and the receivers weren't getting open. The defense gave up two first downs due to penalties on the Dolphins' second touchdown drive, and it struggled against the run for the third straight week. And there was a missed field goal in the final seconds of the half.
More than anything, the execution was poor and the energy level was low, and it came from everyone.
"Coach always preaches about going out and competing, and we weren't competing in the first half at all, especially on the offensive side of the ball," wide receiver Deion Branch said.
"We obviously didn't come out and have the right type of energy," linebacker Rob Ninkovich echoed. "We didn't start the game fast. We had to come into halftime, regroup as a team and know that we've got 30 minutes to go outplay Miami in the second half. I think we were challenged in the first half, and we didn't respond the way that you want to respond. Good mental toughness for us."
And that's where the bleep button came into play. Belichick and the coaching staff let the players have it during the break.
"It's probably not even legal for me to say it right now, so I won't do it," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "I'll leave it around — just know that we needed to come out and play better in the second half, and we did that."
What about the censored version?
"I'm not going to censor it," Mayo said. "Too many beeps."
The message was clear: Start executing. There weren't exactly wholesale changes at halftime, not like the way the defense scrapped its game plan on the fly last week in Denver. The Patriots changed some things on defense, getting more aggressive with blitzes and then playing a little more man coverage over the middle of the field to eliminate some soft spots in the zone.
But other than that, the offensive line finally settled down after a start that could be considered a worst-case scenario, losing left tackle Matt Light before kickoff and left guard Logan Mankins (who started at Light's position) in the first quarter. That allowed Brady to finally get into rhythm with wide receiver Wes Welker, which then opened up some things for tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
It was ugly — maybe the ugliest 30 minutes the Patriots have played all season — but they understood what they needed to do to get it right. It's not like they were waiting for Belichick to wake them up, but his swift kick to the team's collective derriere prompted them to begin moving in the right direction.
The Patriots got a play here (Vince Wilfork's fumble recovery) and a play there (Branch's touchdown reception) to breed some confidence. Once it started, the Patriots admitted to feeling the snowball effect that tilted the game in their favor. They erased a 17-point deficit in 13 minutes, and they eventually turned it into a 10-point lead.
That's what a little tough love will do for a team that has proven time and again how mentally strong they can be in the face of adversity.
"It's halftime, [and] you're down 17-0 in a very important game," right guard Brian Waters said. "So I'm sure that it was emphasized in a way that it needed to be emphasized. That's for sure."
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