FOXBOROUGH - Unlike defensive linemen or even linebackers, a defensive back is subject to scrutiny in every game based on two statistics: How many catches did he allow, and how many yards did the receptions go for?
Based on that, one might conclude that Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty had a rough go of it yesterday, since his primary responsibility, Dolphins wideout Brandon Marshall, had seven receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown.
But McCourty came up with one of the biggest plays in the Patriots’ 27-24 win, which clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs. With the game tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter, McCourty made his first interception of the season, taking in Matt Moore’s underthrown deep ball at the New England 2-yard line. The ensuing drive led to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, which put the Patriots ahead to stay.
Flagged once for pass interference, and flogged repeatedly by Marshall on big gains, McCourty partly made up for those miscues with his timely turnover. Quite an up-and-down day for the second-year corner from Rutgers, who had seven interceptions last year in a Pro Bowl rookie season.
“You know they throw to [Marshall] a lot, so he’s going to get the chance to make some plays,’’ McCourty said. “But you know the ball’s coming at you a lot, so you’ll have a chance to make plays. At times I did that, at times I didn’t.’’
The interception, he said, “was a big play, it got our defense off the field, and our offense was able to move the ball right down the field.’’
McCourty’s pick extended quite a turnaround for the Patriots, who fell behind by 17 points at halftime, with just five first-half first downs. But the second-half comeback helped the home crowd finally match the mood of the holiday music piped into Gillette Stadium. The Patriots scored 17 quick points on a quarter-opening field goal, and touchdowns that followed a fumble recovery and a short Dolphins punt.
Miami didn’t run a single third-quarter play in Patriots territory. McCourty’s interception, in fact, came on the first play run by Miami in the second half on New England’s side of the field. Going up against Brian Hartline this time, McCourty actually saw the Dolphins receiver run past him - a common theme yesterday - but Moore’s pass was well short, giving McCourty enough time to turn around, find the ball, and make the play.
“It was hanging in the air,’’ said McCourty. “I thought I jumped too early at first, but happy I was able to come down with the big play. It felt pretty good. I finally got a chance to get one. It was a big play and helped the team out big-time.’’
Marshall is Miami’s go-to receiver, so McCourty - facing him for the third time - had his work cut out. He was beaten deep on the first play of the second quarter (a 47-yard catch by Marshall), and was called for pass interference on the next drive against Hartline, giving the Dolphins an automatic first down on a third-and-12 play.
“That’s life playing corner,’’ McCourty said. “You make a play, then they come right back and they make a play. With the receivers in this league, they’re able to make some plays, so it’s back and forth every week.
“Today wasn’t the first day I got beat in my career, and it won’t be the last. You’ve just got to keep playing.’’
Marshall had five of his seven catches and 102 yards by halftime, when the Dolphins were seemingly in control.
“He’s a great threat,’’ said Kyle Arrington, who also drew the coverage against Marshall at times. “I mean, he’s 6-5, big guy, strong guy, rangy, so you know you can put the ball anywhere in the vicinity and he has a lot of reach to go get it. It’s all about having short memory and mental toughness.’’
McCourty showed those traits, coming back in the second half with his interception and another pass breakup on the Dolphins’ final drive. Of course, Marshall raced past him on the next play for 41 yards, one final dip in a topsy-turvy day.
“Inconsistent,’’ McCourty said, when asked what kind of grade he’d give himself. “Definitely inconsistent.’’Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.