FOXBOROUGH - It was the big play that preceded probably the biggest play during the Patriots’ comeback from a surprising 17-point halftime deficit yesterday.
Having just booted the zero off the home side of the scoreboard with a 45-yard field goal at 11:39 of the third quarter to cut the Dolphins’ lead to 17-3, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski boomed the ensuing kickoff to Dolphins return man Clyde Gates.
Receiving the kick at the Dolphins’ 5, Gates accelerated through a wide hole in the middle of the defense and appeared to have open field in front of him if he could get past Gostkowski, the Patriots’ 215-pound kicker.
He couldn’t. Gostkowski swiped at Gates’s leg, making enough contact to trip him up at the Dolphins’ 38.
Yes, the kicker got him by a foot.
“I got a hand on his foot and luckily he went down,’’ said Gostkowski after the Patriots’ 27-24 victory. “The few times I have to step up to make a play, that’s what I try to do. I got lucky.’’
His tackle proved particularly crucial when, three plays later, Vince Wilfork recovered Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore’s fumble at the Miami 38. The Patriots took advantage of the miscue, with Tom Brady eventually finding Deion Branch for a 1-yard touchdown reception. Less than five minutes later, Brady plunged in from the 1, and the game was tied at 17.
Like predecessor Adam Vinatieri, whose tackle of Dallas’s Herschel Walker in a 1996 game is still remembered reverently by Patriots fans, Gostkowski takes pride in bringing down a ballcarrier. He has five tackles this season (three unassisted) and 18 in his six-year career.
But none this season mattered more than yesterday’s given that it indirectly led to Wilfork’s pivotal fumble recovery.
“It was a big play and it feels even more rewarding since we made them turn the ball over right after that and ended up winning the game,’’ said Gostkowski, who with his two field goals and three extra points now has 701 career points, moving him into third place behind Vinatieri and Gino Cappelletti on the Patriots’ all-time scoring list. “I guess that [tackle] was my Christmas present.’’
It’s no exaggeration to say Gostkowski was the last line of defense.
Had he failed to stop Gates, a celebration of Dolphins in the end zone 62 yards and a few seconds later was all but certain, and the Patriots would have trailed, 24-3, presuming the extra point was good. It would have been an entirely different game than what became their 12th victory of the season.
Gostkowski said he wasn’t sure as the play was unfolding whether he was the last defender Gates had to beat.
“I’d have to watch the tape to know for sure, but I know I didn’t feel anyone around me,’’ said Gostkowski before using a term that probably isn’t found in special teams coach Scott O’Brien’s playbook. “It was kind of an ‘Oh, crap’ moment. Luckily, I got myself into good enough position to have a chance to make a play. I’m sure there are times when he cuts up front and that guy runs right by me.’’
That’s what Gates thought would happen.
“I kind of felt I was gone,’’ said Gates, a rookie out of Abilene Christian who has averaged 25.3 yards on 32 returns. “The kicker made a real good play. Credit to him.’’Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.