The Patriots had a golden opportunity to deliver us a most-unexpected Christmas present on Saturday — something to talk about. There are only so many times you can say "Patriots look good" at family gatherings before it becomes a bit stale, and the early deficit and first-half no-show from the Patriots looked like it would provide hours of fodder for conversation.
They failed to deliver that Christmas present, though, turning a 17-0 halftime deficit into a 27-17 lead rather quickly, thus transforming all those "What a stinkah!" conversations at family gatherings into "Pats are good … yup."
All things considered, a victory over a divisional opponent that clinches a first-round bye isn't the worst way to ruin Christmas. It just would have been nice to have something to talk about. It's just not the holidays if we don't have something to complain about.
Now, let's get into all the leftover thoughts from Saturday's 27-24 victory over the Dolphins.
–Those must have been some orange slices passed around the locker room at halftime, huh? I wouldn't be surprised to learn there was some Quench Gum involved, too. Whatever it was, it worked, particularly for the defense, which deserves credit for completely turning that game around in the third quarter. We've all said a million times that the defense has plenty of shortcomings, but it was the defense's performance that allowed the offense to have the opportunity to score 27 second-half points.
–In addition to the orange slices, the players said Bill Belichick delivered a rather strong message to the team at the half, and Jerod Mayo said it was filled with so many expletives that he couldn't repeat it, nor could he even offer an edited version.
"I'm not going to censor it," Mayo said. "Too many beeps."
—Brian Hartline (four catches, 72 yards) has to be the most talented receiver who remains a no-name. If he were on the Saints or Chargers or any team that's had a quarterback for the last few years, he'd be a star.
Then again, I don't play fantasy football, so maybe he's not quite the no-name I think he is.
–The game opening with a long bomb past Devin McCourty, and then the second quarter starting with another one, isn't even worth talking about anymore. There have been 15 games, and we know he's a liability now. We don't have to understand, and you can hold out hope that he'll come around next season, but you just have to expect him to get burned at least once every game.
–McCourty, for all his struggles, picked a rather good time to get interception No. 1, though. He also deserves a ton of credit for never letting one or two bad, bad plays ruin his day. Even if he gets burned for a 50-yard gain in the first half, he generally keeps his confidence level high in the second half.
He's also playing with the full use of just one of his arms, so again, it's hard to criticize him too harshly.
–On an early third-and-2, Aaron Hernandez lined up at fullback and motioned right to block, and Little Danny Woodhead snuck through a tiny holy for a first-down pickup (Woodhead is not tall, in case you weren't picking up on that). On the next third down, a third-and-4, Wes Welker lined up in the backfield to Tom Brady's right, motioned to the left and ran a quick little in-cut for a big gain of 16. The sequence of those two third-down plays give you an indication of how powerful and diverse this Patriots offense can be.
–On the other hand, the Patriots looked like any other team on the following third-and-8 and third-and-10, when Brady was sacked and threw an incompletion. Even Mighty Tom needs a few yards on first down to operate with efficiency.
–He also needs an offensive line. Most fans of the game understand the value of offensive linemen, but if you have any friends who think just any old 300-pounder can get the job done, show them game tape of Saturday's first-half debacle. With Matt Light out, and Logan Mankins leaving the game due to injury early on, it was a hodgepodge of big dudes that suddenly became responsible for protecting the health of No. 12, and it did not work out. Nate Solder looked like a rookie more than a few times, and Donald Thomas and Marcus Cannon were pressed into much more action than they or the team expected. The Pats also once again played musical chairs at center, with Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly working as a tag team tandem.
The end result was Brady being sacked four times and getting rushed every other play, keeping the offense completely out of rhythm for the first 30 minutes. Somehow though, Dante Scarnecchia got his unit to jell in the second half, a development that was as big a reason as any that the Patriots won the game.
–Everyone, including the broadcast team, seemed puzzled as to why Belichick would challenge the Davone Bess catch early on. I thought it was pretty simple. First, five yards can make a difference on a field goal on a cold day. Second, Bill likes to be right, and if you're wrong, he likes you to know that. Mystery solved.
–That said, when Belichick was proven wrong on his challenge later in the game, moans and groans were let out all around New England. The perfect season was over. (Belichick had been 7-for-7 on challenges this year, a streak that was doomed once CBS posted it on the TV during the broadcast.)
–I don't know about you, but nothing gets me in the holiday spirit more than settling on the couch to watch some football, only to see a 150-second movie trailer for a film about Tom Hanks dying on 9/11. Talk about a punch to the gut when you're just trying to watch a football game.
–Uncatchable is an obsolete term among NFL referees, and the resulting pass interference call on McCourty absolutely killed the Patriots on the Dolphins' long second-quarter drive that ended with a touchdown. Tell me what planet Hartline would have had to have been on to catch this football:
–Coming out of a commercial break, Rob Gronkowski popped up on the TV and sent a Christmas message to fans. It was in English, but it was delivered just about as smoothly as Gronkowski's Christmas message in Spanish.
–Gronkowski was also infinitely satisfied with himself for getting through the message without messing up, and at one point during his delivery, he looked like this:
–I thought Friday's Boston Globe piece by Chad Finn on Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti was well done, considering the sensitivity of such a subject, but I will say I think it's unfair to lump them together as one. While neither may be as great as they once were, Gil still has golden pipes and does an outstanding job of delivering the play-by-play. Admittedly, it'd be hard for me to be overly critical of the two, as they've just become a staple of the whole Patriots experience, but they ought to at least be judged on their individual abilities.
–Gino did announce before the game that Andre Carter was starting at defensive end, which was bad, but we'll just blame that on someone handing him an old card.
–Whenever fans boo in New England it becomes this great point of debate. It's OK to boo. Booing doesn't make the fans bad. The average ticket price for the game was $185. You'd boo at the opera if you paid that much money and the performers weren't even trying. Or at least I assume you would. I don't know what goes on at the opera. What was I talking about?
–I know Vinny Chase goes hot and cold with jobs, but man, times are really tough for Eric Murphy, doing voiceovers for Best Buy ads.
–When Reggie Bush hurdled a defender, Dan Fouts called it a "quidditch move." I'll just say that I don't know about that.
–I have a memory that could not exist without sports. Where was I on Jan. 6, 2002? I can tell you, but only because I remember where I was when I watched the Patriots beat the Panthers in Carolina.
So when Bush threw the pass to Matt Moore that drew a pass interference call on Rob Ninkovich (whoops!), I immediately thought back to a Dolphins-Patriots matchup in Week 15 of the '01 season, when Charlie Weis drew up almost the same exact play, with Faulk hitting Brady for a 15-yard pickup, or something like that. That game was also on a Saturday.
Yet I can't remember anyone's birthday. If only they'd have those on the same dates as insignificant sporting events, I'd be able to properly function in society.
–Sorry to report this, but James Ihedigbo is down on the field. Go watch some commercials, then continue reading the rest of this story.
—Stevan Ridley was, quite simply, a tremendous draft pick. All you tend to hear these days is how many mistakes Belichick has made in the draft, which is a fair criticism dating back five or six years. However, snagging Ridley in the third round was a deft decision, and if he had joined an offense more desperate for help in the backfield, he'd most certainly have more than 360 rushing yards. As it is, he's immensely useful for the Patriots in a limited capacity, as evidenced by his 5 yards per carry.
He's also tough as hell, and he refuses to be tackled, even if the wannabe-tackler is Cameron Wake.
–Welker had one catch for 14 yards in the first half. He had 11 catches for 124 yards in the second half. He did so despite owning a Twitter account, thereby debunking several myths about the social network's perceived effect on receivers' performances.
–Welker is obviously a complete freak, and his stats are truly eye-popping. He leads the league in catches with 116, and nobody else even has 90. The closest player is Jimmy Graham with 87. Welker also leads the league in receiving yards with 1,518, which is 81 yards more than Calvin Johnson.
Welker will need seven catches against the Bills to tie a career high, but he has no chance of matching the impressiveness of that season (123 receptions, 1,348 yards), when he missed, essentially, three entire games but still led the league in catches.
–Welker also leads the league in Photos That Make You Look Completely Crazy (PTMYLCC):
–While we're on the stats train, check out Vince Wilfork's numbers: 49 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and a touchdown. Perhaps Skinny Vinny's finest season.
–Early in the fourth quarter, when Gronkowski broke through three Dolphins then dragged Tyrone Culver for 5 yards, Scott Zolak said on the radio that Gronk knew his mom was in attendance and the tight end "smelled kielbasa" and wanted to get the game over so he could go home and eat it. Now, that might have been a joke, but it also could have been factual analysis.
–Why is the entire New England region in love with Tom Brady? Well, a first-and-10 run in the game's final minutes when he dives headfirst into a linebacker gives you a good idea.
It might have been dumb and risky, but it was also fearless. People like that.
–It was interesting that the Patriots, needing one first down to be able to kill the clock and win the game, came out three times in the shotgun and ran two passing plays. The first led to Brady's 5-yard scramble, and the second was a third-and-5 strike to Welker that sealed the win. You just have to love it.
It's unconventional, and when it doesn't work, Belichick looks foolish and gets called "arrogant" in the media, but it doesn't stop him from leading his team to work that way. And if it didn't work, and the Patriots punted the ball back to the Dolphins with 1:30 left in the game, this story might look a lot different, but the 12-3 record and the spot atop the AFC isn't determined by ifs; it's determined by the play on the field, and it's that outward confidence shown on the game's final drive that will help this teams win football games when they really matter.
–Speaking of confidence … touchdown.