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Patriots 27, Dolphins 24 | WEB EXCLUSIVE

Patriots rally for win over Dolphins

Victory clinches first-round playoff bye for New England

Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork made a key fumble recovery in the second half to set up a Patriots' scoring drive. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff) Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork made a key fumble recovery in the second half to set up a Patriots' scoring drive.
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 24, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH – The New England Patriots climbed out of a three-score first-half hole against the rival Miami Dolphins, scoring 27 unanswered second-half points as they recorded a season sweep of Miami with a 27-24 win today at Gillette Stadium.

The victory, the seventh in a row for the Patriots, clinched a first-round playoff bye and the Patriots remained on pace to clinch the top seed in the AFC with a win next week vs. the Buffalo Bills.

In the second half, the Patriots made the necessary adjustments, the offense got on track, the defense made some timely plays, and Dolphins’ quarterback Matt Moore become an inconsistent passer.

"I thought we executed better in the second half. We just had a hard time getting going. We obviously didn’t play very well in the first half. I think we made a pretty big commitment at halftime to each other to go out and everyone do their job and quit worrying about everybody else and go out and play better and we did that," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.

One key change was Brady began hitting receiver Wes Welker consistently in the second half. Welker finished with 12 receptions for 138.

"That was a pretty poor first half on myself," Welker said. "That was pretty bad. I just wanted to let them know that that was bull on my part and in the second half, I wanted to come out and play the way we needed to play to win the game and that’s what we were able to do. We were able to make some plays and everyone chipped in, and that’s what it’s all about and that’s how you win games. It takes a full effort from the whole team and nobody really was holding us back and I felt like in the first half, I really did that."

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 Pats’ final possession of the second 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: a 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 an interference penalty and giving Miami a fresh set of downs at the 3. On third down, Moore got great time from his line and found fullback Charles Clay in the end zone for the touchdown.

The Dolphins went up 17-0.

The Patriots’ 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 pinning Miami inside its own 20-yard line.

The Patriots also used a makeshift offensive line because starting left tackle Matt Light was declared inactive for the game because of a leg injury and left guard Logan Mankins left with an injury in the first quarter. After some early breakdowns, the line bought Brady more time in the second half.

"I think that was – to lose Matt [Light] an hour and a half before the game and then to lose Logan [Mankins] the first or second series of the game, a lot of guys really stepped in and played hard, played for 60 minutes. I think that’s what it took today," Brady said.

New England began moving the ball on its final drive of the first half, with Brady completing 4 of 5 passes, including a 31-yard sideline pass to Deion Branch. It was Branch’s first catch since the Colts game Dec. 4; he was held without a reception against the Redskins and didn’t play in Denver.

With the clock running down, the Pats attempted a 51-yard field goal, but Stephen Gostkowski hooked the ball wide 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 first half of their November win at Gillette.

New England made effective adjustments at halftime, and got on the scoreboard 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 kickoff, Gostkowski made up for the missed field goal by preventing a potential kickoff return touchdown from Clyde Gates.

Gates fielded the kickoff at the 5 and had a full head of steam and a lot of real estate in front of him. Gostkowski was able to trip up Gates, stopping him at the 38.

Three plays later, Vince Wilfork pounced on a loose ball – it looked like a bad exchange from center Mike Pouncey to Moore – and the Pats started in Miami territory.

Working out of the no huddle, Brady led the Patriots into the end zone for the first time, finding an open Branch at the back of the end zone to cut the score to 17-10.

"It’s been a good weapon for us," Brady said of the no-huddle strategy. "I think we used it down there. We use it, it seems, like every game. I don’t think we go into every game thinking, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ If it works, we stick with it. We tried it early – we tried it in the first half [and] it didn’t work very well, but based on our personnel we thought maybe we should just stick with it and we certainly executed a lot better."

New England tied the score before the third quarter was out, then added 10 points in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach for Miami.

The Dolphins did get a touchdown late in the fourth, but there wasn’t enough time left on the clock for them to get the ball back and try to score again.

For the day, Brady was 27-for-46 for 304 yards, meaning he completed 20 of 27 second-half attempts, quite the turnaround from his first-half woes.

Moore was 17-for-33 for 294 yards.

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