FOXBOROUGH - The problem with great art is that it spoils you.
For most of the season, Patriots fans have enjoyed pigskin Picassos. Yesterday, the Patriots resembled a paint-by-numbers kit -- the end result produced the usual picture of victory, but it was lacking in style or sophistication.
Hey, they can’t all be masterpieces.
After jumping to a 28-0 halftime lead over the hapless Miami Dolphins (1-14), the Patriots suffered their first scoreless half of the season before settling for a 28-7 victory at Gillette Stadium that kept their perfect season intact, provided them with their franchise-record 15th victory of the season, and set an NFL record for most consecutive victories in one regular season.
But much to the chagrin of the 68,756 in attendance, Tom Brady’s pursuit of Peyton Manning’s record for touchdown passes in a season and wide receiver Randy Moss’s chase of Jerry Rice’s mark for TD catches in a season will continue away from home. Brady threw three scoring passes in the first half and has 48, one off Manning’s NFL record. Moss hauled in two more TD catches in the first half (11 and 1 yard) and is now one short of tying Jerry Rice’s record of 22.
But Brady, Moss, and the Patriots, who had wide receiver Troy Brown for the first time all season, were shut out in the second half, marking the first time the team failed to register a point in a half. Instead, those records, like the Patriots’ quest for 16-0, will have to wait until Saturday night’s season finale against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium.
"That record has been around for I don’t know how many years, but records are meant to be broken," said Moss, who had five catches for 50 yards. "If I break the record, I’m cool. If I don’t I’m cool, as long as that zero stays in that [loss] column I’m fine. So, basically what I’m saying is I want to keep winning, the [heck] with records."
New England only had 96 yards of total offense in the second half and picked up six first downs. Brady, who was 18 of 33 for 215 yards overall, was 4 of 15 for 52 yards and threw both of his interceptions in the second half. The Patriots’ seven second-half possessions featured two Brady interceptions, a strip-sack fumble by No. 12, and four punts.
"I don’t think you ever want to have a half like that, but it’s something to learn from and something we can look at and get better with," said wide receiver Wes Welker, who had five catches for 49 yards to tie Troy Brown’s club record for catches in a season (101).
It’s possible the Patriots simply lost interest after pummeling the pathetic Dolphins, who did little to defend the honor of their 1972 undefeated forerunners, for a half. Early on, it looked like the Dolphins, who trailed the Patriots, 42-7, at the half in the teams’ first meeting, a 49-28 New England romp Oct. 21, were experiencing deja vu.
New England scored on four of its first five possessions. Brady hit Moss for an 11-yard score with 8:47 left in the first quarter. Then a 51-yard run by Laurence Maroney, who had a career-high 156 yards rushing on 14 carries, and a pass interference call on Miami defensive back Travis Daniels set up another Brady-to-Moss connection, their NFL-record 21st of the season.
Maroney then further exposed the Dolphins’ 32d-rated run defense, ripping off a 59-yard touchdown run, the longest rush of his career, on third and 1 from the New England 41 to give the Patriots a 21-0 lead with 10:04 left in the half. At that point, Maroney had three rushes for 113 yards and his second straight 100-yard rushing effort.
"I thought it was one of the best games he’s played," said Brady. "He had some great runs there with some great blocking by Heath [Evans]. Receivers blocked downfield. It’s exciting to see for him. Sometimes people forget about him, but we certainly don’t. He obviously has big-play capability that he showed today."
Brady then ensured the Patriots would break one Dolphins record this season, threading the needle through the arms of Miami safety Lance Schulters to hit Jabar Gaffney for a 48-yard TD with 3:33 left before the half. The touchdown was the Patriots’ 71st of the season, breaking the mark of 70 set by the 1984 Dolphins.
At that point, fans were probably counting down until Belichick put Brown, the 15-year veteran who received a rousing ovation when he went back to return his first punt, back in the game for a sentimental score. It would have been atonement for the punt Brown muffed in the second quarter that ended up in the arms of Miami’s Donnie Spragan.
"It was an up-and-down day for me," said Brown, who had six punt returns for 55 yards and was touched by the fans’ response.
The same could be said for the Patriots. They were up in the first half and down in the second.
Belichick credited the Dolphins for making adjustments in the second half, but some Patriots admitted the team may have let up.
"We came out and just kind of let our foot off the throttle, the gas, whatever you want to call it," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs, part of a defense that recorded a season-high seven sacks against Miami QB Cleo Lemon and twice stuffed the Dolphins in the red zone. "I don’t know if it’s human nature or an athlete’s nature, but we just can’t continue to do that. I mean thankfully it didn’t bite us in the butt or anything like that, but we won. Merry Christmas."
Now, the Giants are the only thing that stands between the Patriots and the first 16-0 regular-season in NFL history. A win also would allow New England to break its NFL record for consecutive regular-season victories (18), which it tied yesterday.
"I don’t think the people, and when I say the people I mean the fans of football, I don’t think they realize what we’re doing, how hard of work we’re putting in for what we’re trying to accomplish," said Moss.
"What we’re trying to accomplish I really see it coming together. I know we got the New York Giants next week and they’re standing in our way and hopefully we can get a victory. I know we’re going to New York to put 11 on the field and see what happens."