By: Bob George/
December 24, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH -- It was looking like all the Patriots would get in their Christmas stockings would be a huge lump of coal.

After playing perhaps their worst half of football of the season against the visiting Miami Dolphins, the Patriots completely dominated the second half and managed to send all of New England home happy for Christmas Eve with a 27-24 victory at Gillette Stadium on Saturday. As badly as the Patriots played in the first half on both sides of the ball in the first half, the Patriots played that well in the second half, capitalizing on two Dolphin turnovers and finally getting some time for Tom Brady to throw the football. Other than a late touchdown drive by Miami which featured some bad defense and questionable defensive calls, the Patriots woke up in the third quarter and took it to Miami, winning a game they had to win against an opponent which should not have given them this much trouble.

The Patriots improved to 12-3 and clinched a first round bye for the playoffs, thanks to Houston's odious loss to Indianapolis on Thursday night. The Patriots stayed a game ahead of both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, who both won on Saturday. With a win at home next weekend against Buffalo, the Patriots will secure home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs for the second straight year.

But it was far from easy. Miami dominated the game early, with a quick, blitzing defense and terrific play from the secondary in preventing receivers from getting open. The Dolphins got some help from the officials in putting up 17 first half points, but of greater concern for the Patriots was the play of Devin McCourty, who was burned three times in the game on deep passes, two of them to Brandon Marshall where he simply ran by the 2010 Pro Bowler and caught a perfect touch pass from backup quarterback Matt Moore.

Another problem that plagued the Patriots in the first half was the patchwork offensive line which was getting killed most of the time. Logan Mankins started the game at left tackle as Matt Light was a late scratch. Nate Solder was moved around frequently. It wasn't until the second half when this group finally got its bearings and gave Brady some time to throw, as well as some rushing yardage for rookie Stevan Ridley.

A sack of Brady by Yeremiah Bell ended the first offensive drive for the Patriots. The second drive went three and out, as Brady misfired on a short pass to Wes Welker under pressure from Will Allen. The third drive was a four and out, as Aaron Hernandez had a drop and Vontae Davis smothered Welker on a third down pass. The next three drives ended in three and outs, thanks to incompletions to Welker and a sack of Brady by Cameron Wake.

The last drive of the half for the Patriots did see Brady hit Deion Branch for 31 yards. But it turned out to be a negative for the Patriots in that Branch did not run out of bounds at the Miami 38 with 12 seconds left and the Patriots with just one timeout. The Patriots had to burn the timeout, and after a six-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski, were forced to have Stephen Gostkowski try a 51-yard field goal. He pushed it wide left, and the Patriots were shut out in the first half.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins were picking on McCourty in building their 17-0 lead. On their first possession, Brian Hartline simply ran right by McCourty on the right sideline, and Moore laid it right in there for 39 yards, leading to a 47-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter. On the first play of the second quarter, Marshall did the same thing, running right by McCourty for 47 yards and setting up a 19-yard touchdown pass to Marshall two plays later (beating Kyle Arrington in coverage). Marshall would get McCourty one more time, late in the game with the Patriots protecting a 10-point lead.

On the next Dolphin drive, the officials gave a huge assist with some questionable pass interference calls. At their own 9-yard line and facing third and 12, Moore tried to hit Hartline at the right sideline and overthrew him, but McCourty was called for interference despite the ball being uncatchable. Later, the Dolphins tried a play the Patriots ran against them back in 2001 with Reggie Bush taking a pitch from Moore, then Moore took off on a left sideline pattern and Bush threw back across the field. Rob Ninkovich was in coverage and incidentally contacted Moore as the ball sailed by him, but interference was called anyway on Ninkovich. Three plays later, Charles Clay caught a 1-yard scoring toss from Moore to make it 17-0 Miami and sending Gillette Stadium into a dazed shock.

Someone must have spoken up in the locker room at halftime, because the Patriots simply changed the game on both sides of the ball with relative ease. Brady set the tone with a 22-yard toss to Gronkowski on the first play of the second half, and marched the Patriots to the Miami 26 before Gostkowski got the team on the board with a 45-yard field goal.

Two of the next three Miami drives ended in turnovers, and it was almost three out of three. Three plays after the field goal, Moore fumbled a snap on third and eight from his own 40, and Vince Wilfork fell on the loose ball. Eight plays later, Brady hit Branch from two yards out to make it 17-10 Patriots. The next Miami drive was a three and out, with Moore again suffering a fumble on third down, but Mike Pouncey pounced on the loose football to save possession for the Dolphins. The Patriots got the ball back at the Miami 41 and covered those yards in 7 plays, with Brady sneaking it in from the one to tie the game at 17.

Miami moved the ball well on the next drive, with Moore hitting Marshall for 13 yards, Bush for 12 and Hartline for 10. On the fourth play of the fourth quarter, Moore tried to get cute and attempted another lob pass past McCourty. This one was a deep middle shot to Hartline, but Moore greatly underthrew the ball and McCourty had his first pick of the season. The Patriots got the ball at the two and drove to the Miami 24, but had to settle for a Gostkowski 42-yard field goal and their first lead at 20-17.

A sack of Moore by Jerod Mayo gave the ball back to the Patriots quickly, and Brady was able to lead the Patriots on an 11-play, 59-yard drive capped by another Brady one-yard sneak. That gave the Patriots a 27-17 cushion with 2:56 left in the game. Miami still had all three of their timeouts, and didn't need to use any of them on a 7-play, 80-yard drive which culminated with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Devone Bess to make it 27-24 Patriots. Marshall again ran right by McCourty and hauled in a 41-yard pass with Miami facing a third and ten at their own 20 which helped set up the touchdown.

The Patriots were able to run out the clock despite a strange 18-yard run by Ridley with 45 seconds left when a victory formation would have done nicely.

The Patriots are still a flawed team, one which belies its 12-3 record. But it was a game where the Patriots made plays when they had to, made more plays than Miami, and came out with a win by being better at winning than Miami. It sounds oversimplified, but if the Patriots are going to win in January, it will be this way, not by sheer domination.