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October 27. 2013 9:02PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Pats Notebook: Reversal of fortune

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

ANOTHER bad series, capped by another failed third down, seemed to portend another rough third quarter for a Patriots team that could ill-afford to waste a period, already trailing by two scores and facing the prospect of losing for the third time in four weeks.

The Dolphins had dominated the first half, limiting New England to just 59 yards of offense, and they seemed poised to expand their advantage after capitalizing on the good field position afforded by the Pats' three-and-out to move the ball into the red zone.

Miami was at the 19, so well within field goal range, but, facing second and 2, the Fins were primed for more. They appeared headed for a touchdown that would've opened their lead up to 21, and very well could've busted wide open the battle for the top spot in the AFC East.

But then the Patriots showed why the division still goes through them. On second down they forced an incompletion from Ryan Tannehill, then on third down Dont'a Hightower dropped the quarterback for a nine-yard sack, and the loss made that much more difficult a kick into a tricky wind, so Caleb Sturgis' 46-yard boot banged off the right post. In two plays, the Patriots had swung momentum in their favor.

And they never let it swing back.

After a week spent emphasizing third-quarter performance, and a halftime break in which the team's captains sent the message that things needed to improve, the Pats responded by scoring 17 points in the period's final 10 minutes, eventually reeling off 24 unanswered overall, and ultimately claiming a 27-17 triumph to reach the season's midpoint with a record of 6-2.

“Guys came in (at halftime) and the first thing, 'Hey, we've got a lot of football left to play,'” said safety Devin McCourty. “The captains did a good job, but as a team, to have that mindset to come out there and to just play, that was big.

“This team is very mentally tough, and it shows up. We've had things happen this year that we didn't expect, that we couldn't see coming, and it's just next guy up. How do we fight through this? How do we get through it?”

Until Sunday they had been unable to figure an answer to those questions in the third quarter, in which they'd failed to score a touchdown this season, and had been outscored by a whopping total of 44-9, but McCourty said the general message this week was that the Patriots needed to do a better job of understanding what is being coached and being asked of them while adjustments are discussed during the break. Sunday, the results suggested they got the message.

After Sturgis' miss, a Patriot offense that had been stagnant all afternoon finally seemed to have a spark. Stevan Ridley, who was benched for the first quarter, maintained the momentum by starting the series with a 23-yard run. Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski for a 23-yard completion down the middle. Two plays after that, Brady connected with Aaron Dobson on a 14-yard touchdown pass.

But the biggest key to the surge was really the playmaking of the defense, which quickly got the ball back to the offense. Rookie Logan Ryan blitzed off the corner and stripped Tannehill while making the sack, and Rob Ninkovich recovered at Miami's 13, giving the Patriots defense their 35th consecutive game causing a turnover, and giving their offense a golden chance to even the game.

They did that in three plays, with Brandon Bolden running around the left end from 2 yards out. In a matter of 113 seconds, a 17-3 deficit had become a 17-all tie. And New England was feeling good again after getting booed off the field before the break.

“When everyone's doing their job, that's what Patriot football looks like,” Ryan said. “We're capable of doing that. We definitely emphasize that if we make plays we celebrate each other, and that stuff rubs off. A lot of guys were making plays and had big opportunities.”

Indeed, the Patriots finished with six sacks, two interceptions, the aforementioned fumble recovery and even a blocked field goal in the second half, when they kept the Dolphin offense to 2-for-7 on third down, 126 yards of offense and zero points. Meanwhile, the Pats tacked on a 48-yard Stephen Gostkowski kick just before the third quarter expired, then essentially put the game away when the Pats survived a strip-sack of Brady to complete a 12-play, 82-yard drive on a 3-yard Ridley run with 7:14 to play.

"We really tried to emphasize coming out after halftime and trying to start with a lot more energy than we had in the past," Ninkovich said. "We did a great job of coming in and understanding the concepts of how we wanted to play these guys; the first half we didn't play like we should have, and the second half we played how we wanted to play for the whole game — so we'll take it."

Indeed they will. At 6-2, the Patriots' record is better than it's been at this point in either of the past two seasons, which finished at 13-3 and 12-4, respectively.

"We didn't do much good in the first half. The second half was great," Brady said. "It was a good team effort. It wasn't easy. We're still grinding away. We obviously have a long way to go, but it feels good to be 6-2."

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Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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