FOXBOROUGH - After last week’s win in Denver, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he felt the team played its first 60-minute game of the season.
Yesterday at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots played for about half that long. But their 30-minute effort in the second half was enough to overcome the Dolphins’ performance in the opening 30 minutes, and New England pulled out a 27-24 win.
It was the seventh consecutive win for the Patriots, moving them to 12-3 and guaranteeing them either the first or second seed in the AFC playoffs and the bye that comes with it. If New England wins next week against Buffalo, it sews up the No. 1 seed.
“We never gave up on one another and never said anything negative to one another,’’ defensive captain Vince Wilfork said. “Going down, 17-0, is a pretty big deficit, but this team showed its character. We believed in one another and stepped up.
“It was a great win for us and we still have room for improvement.’’
“We didn’t finish,’’ interim Miami coach Todd Bowles said. “First half we came out and played our tempo, our ballgame, and second half they made us play theirs. Our guys fought, but we didn’t finish.’’
In the second half, the Patriots made the necessary adjustments, with the offense getting on track, the defense making some timely plays, including a crucial fumble recovery by Wilfork, and Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore becoming the inconsistent passer he wasn’t for the first two quarters.
It was, without a doubt, the worst first half of the season for New England. Brady went 7 for 19 for 87 yards - though before the Patriots’ final possession of the second quarter he was 3 for 14 for 37 yards - and the defense was flagged for two pass-interference plays on one drive, both on third-down plays.
The second came on third and 3 inside New England territory, when the Dolphins tried a trick play: the direct snap went to Reggie Bush and the back floated a pass to the opposite sideline, where Moore was the waiting receiver. Rob Ninkovich was in Moore’s face as he waited for the pass and knocked the quarterback down, drawing the penalty and giving Miami a fresh set of downs at the 3.
On third down, Moore got time from his line and found fullback Charles Clay in the end zone from a yard out for the TD. That put the Dolphins ahead, 17-0.
“We didn’t really do anything well,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the opening two quarters. “We didn’t throw, we didn’t catch, we couldn’t get open, we couldn’t block, we couldn’t tackle, we couldn’t cover, we couldn’t rush, couldn’t return kicks, couldn’t cover them.
“Pick a winner.’’
The offense struggled so mightily that Zoltan Mesko punted six times in the first 30 minutes; he hadn’t punted more than five times in any other game this season. But he responded when his team needed him, with four of his kicks pinning Miami inside its 20-yard line.
“I’m just doing my job when I’m called on. I try to do the best job I can and I had great coverage downfield - they singled our guys,’’ said Mesko, who had a gross average of 52.3 yards. “And the protection was great - I don’t think they rushed us because I didn’t feel a thing.’’
Mesko didn’t punt once in the second half.
New England began moving the ball on its final drive of the second quarter, with Brady completing 4 of 5 passes, including a 31-yard sideline ball for Deion Branch. It was Branch’s first catch since the Colts game; he was held without a reception against the Redskins and didn’t play in Denver.
With the clock running down, the Patriots attempted a 51-yard field goal, but Stephen Gostkowski hooked the ball left.
It was the second time this season that New England has been shut out in the first half; the Giants also held the Patriots scoreless in the opening 30 minutes of their November win at Gillette.
“We definitely told ourselves at halftime, we’re going to find out what kind of team we have,’’ defensive back Kyle Arrington said. “We could have easily gone in the tank, but I think we have a lot of mentally tough guys on this team and we did a great job of battling back. Words almost can’t explain how good I feel, because I’ve been on teams where we could have easily . . . it could have gotten a lot worse. And to come out and pull the thing out, it’s a good feeling.’’
New England made effective adjustments at halftime, and got points on its first possession of the third quarter with a 45-yard field goal.
But the play that may have changed the tide in New England’s favor came after the field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Gostkowski prevented a potential return for a touchdown by Clyde Gates.
Gates fielded the kick at the 5 and had a full head of steam and a lot of real estate. Gostkowski was able to trip up Gates at the Miami 38.
“Luckily I got myself in a good enough position to have an attempt to make a play and I’m sure there’s times when he cuts up front and that guy will run right past me, but it was a big play,’’ Gostkowski said.
Three plays later, Wilfork pounced on the loose ball after a bad exchange from center Mike Pouncey to Moore, and the Patriots started at the Miami 41.
Working out of the no-huddle, Brady led the Patriots to a score, finding an open Branch at the back of the end zone from a yard out to cut the deficit to 17-10.
New England tied the score before the third quarter was out, taking advantage of a short field.
Moore was sacked on the first play after the Brady-to-Branch touchdown, pushing him back to the Miami 7; two plays later he was sacked again, so Brandon Fields punted from the goal line.
Kevin Faulk fielded the short kick, and New England started the drive in Dolphins territory.
Again working out of the no-huddle, Brady took the ball into the end zone himself from 1 yard out, his second straight game with a rushing touchdown, and the game was tied.
New England added 10 points in the fourth quarter, the TD coming on another Brady sneak.
The Dolphins did get a touchdown late in the fourth, but there wasn’t enough time for them to get the ball back.
Brady finished 27 for 46 for 304 yards, meaning he completed 20 of 27 second-half attempts, quite a turnaround from the first half. And one that mirrored his team’s.