FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots emphasize playing well for 60 minutes every game. On Saturday, 30 was enough — barely.
Rallying from their worst half of the season, the Patriots scored on their next five possessions and clinched a playoff bye with a 27-24 win over the Miami Dolphins on Saturday.
“You don’t want to, certainly, make a habit of this,” said Tom Brady, who scored on two 1-yard sneaks and threw for a 1-yard touchdown. “We showed some resiliency.”
New England (12-3) won its seventh straight game. After the Houston Texans lost to the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night, the Patriots needed a win or a tie to lock up one of the top two spots in the AFC.
“It’s good to clinch,” said Deion Branch, who caught the touchdown pass from Brady, “but not by the way we played. It’s not the way you want to do it.”
Miami (5-10) lost for the third time in eight games after opening at 0-7 and is 1-1 under Todd Bowles, who took over when Tony Sparano was fired.
“First half we came out and played our tempo and our ballgame,” Bowles said. “The second half they made us play theirs.”
The AFC East champions trailed 17-0 at halftime but made the necessary adjustments and went to their no-huddle offense more, keeping the Dolphins from making defensive substitutions. And Brady was on target after a first half in which heavy defensive pressure against a makeshift offensive line affected his accuracy. He completed just 7 of 19 passes for 87 yards and was sacked three times in the half.
But in the second half, he completed 20 of 27 passes for 217 yards, finishing at 27 for 46 for 304 yards and leading one scoring drive after another — a 45-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, the scoring pass to Branch, his own sneak that tied the game, Gostkowski’s 42-yard go-ahead kick after Devin McCourty’s first interception of the year, and the other sneak with 2:56 to go, making it 27-17.
The Dolphins made it closer on Matt Moore’s 15-yard scoring pass to Davone Bess with 1:48 to play. They had three timeouts left, but their hopes faded when Brady hit Wes Welker for a 6-yard gain and a first down.
“We had (Brady’s) number in the first half, but in the second half he came out and made a lot of plays,” Miami linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “He is a coach on the field.”
The Dolphins seemed headed for a victory and got a break even before the game started when Patriots left tackle Matt Light hurt his ankle in warmups and didn’t play. Left guard Logan Mankins took his spot, but he left with a knee injury suffered on New England’s second series.
“There’s always things that are going to go wrong in a football game and things aren’t going to work out the way you want them to all the time,” said Welker, who finished with 12 catches for 138 yards after managing just two for 20 in the first half. “The main thing is just playing a full 60 minutes and never giving in and understanding that one drive and one score (can) get things going.”
The Patriots punted on their first six series of the first half then missed a field goal on the other. The Dolphins struggled in the second half when Moore fumbled the snap at his 38-yard line and Vince Wilfork recovered, starting the drive capped by Branch’s touchdown.
“They committed penalties in the first half,” Dolphins guard Richie Incognito said. “We turned the ball over and committed penalties in the second half. That is never a good recipe.”
Reggie Bush had another outstanding game for Miami with his fourth straight rushing day of at least 100 yards. He finished with 113 on 22 carries one week after gaining a career-high 203 yards.
His latest performance gave him 1,086 yards rushing for the season, the first time in his six years, the first five with the New Orleans Saints, that he passed 1,000.
“It really doesn’t mean anything right now,” he said. “This one’s pretty tough.”
The Dolphins had taken a 3-0 lead on Dan Carpenter’s 47-yard field goal 4:01 into the game and made it 10-0 with 1:15 gone in the second quarter on Moore’s 19-yard pass to Brandon Marshall.
They stretched that to 17-0, the Patriots biggest deficit of the season, on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Moore to Charles Clay. The 89-yard drive was helped by two defensive pass interference penalties on third down.
But the Patriots remained calm in the locker room at intermission.
“There wasn’t a bunch of yelling,” Wilfork said. “We just came in and said we’ve got to play better, we’ve got to make more plays.”
They did. The Dolphins didn’t.
“Our guys fought,” Bowles said, “but we didn’t finish.”
Notes: Welker set a franchise record for one season with 1,518 yards receiving. He broke the mark of 1,493 set by Randy Moss in 2007. … Bush was checked my medical personnel on the sideline late in the game “Something in my leg just didn’t feel right,” he said. “I’m walking. If it was serious, I wouldn’t be walking.” … Moore completed 17 of 33 passes for 294 yards, his highest total as a Dolphin. He threw for more than that with the Carolina Panthers once in 2009 and once in 2010. … The victory was the largest comeback by the Patriots from a second-half deficit since Nov. 10, 2002 when they beat the Chicago Bears 33-30 after trailing 27-6 in the third quarter.