- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: The Patriots clinch a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs and keep pace in the race for the No. 1 seed. A win next Sunday over the visiting Bills would clinch the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots trailed the Dolphins 17-0 at the half, but came roaring back in the second half. That type of mental toughness has been shown by the team throughout the year as they've proven to be a tough team to knock out. On the individual record front, quarterback Tom Brady (27 of 46, 304 yards, 1 TD throwing, 2 rushing TD) set a single-season career high for passing yards, while receiver Wes Welker (12 receptions, 138 yards) passed Randy Moss to set a franchise record for receiving yards in a season.
Kicker Gostkowski’s tackle an unsung play: Early in the third quarter, the Patriots had sliced the 17-0 halftime deficit to 17-3 when kicker Stephen Gostkowski kicked off and Dolphins returner Clyde Gates burst through the hole and looked like he had open space for a touchdown. If not for Gostkowski swiping at him with his arm, and bringing him down, it might have been 24-3 and a greater uphill climb for a comeback. Instead, the Patriots defense recovered a Matt Moore botched center/quarterback exchange and scored to make it 17-10. Big swing.
Offensive line shuffle with Light and Mankins injuries: Patriots starting left tackle Matt Light had his right ankle flare up before the game and was a surprise scratch. The Patriots moved left guard Logan Mankins to left tackle, but Mankins injured his knee on the second series and did not return the rest of the game. All the changes up front hurt the Patriots in the first half as the Dolphins controlled the line of scrimmage – which was a big early storyline -- before the revamped line settled in over the final 30 minutes. Until then, quarterback Tom Brady was out of rhythm. Brady had just 87 yards passing in the first half.
Much maligned Patriots defense delivers: The Patriots’ defense, which ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed but 14th in terms of scoring, put the clamps down in the second half. Pouncing on a Matt Moore fumble on a center/QB exchange was big in the third quarter, but the unit also dialed up some pressure on third down to slow down the Dolphins. Linebacker Jerod Mayo had two sacks and the unit (5 sacks overall) turned things around after a tough opening 30 minutes. There were some big plays given up on defense, and the secondary remains shaky, but the D ultimately delivered.
Marshall and Bush star for Dolphins: The Dolphins received solid performances from receiver Brandon Marshall (7 catches, 156 yards, TD) and running back Reggie Bush (22 carries, 113 yards). They became the first running back/receiver tandem in Dolphins history to each go over 1,000 yards in the same season (receiving for Marshall, rushing for Bush). But the story of the game was the Dolphins' second-half struggle. They had built the big lead early but couldn't finish off the Patriots when they had the chance.
What’s next: The Patriots host the Bills next Sunday, Jan. 1, with another 1 p.m. kickoff. The Dolphins return home to host the Jets on that day.