Patriots come from 17 down, top Dolphins, 27-24

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Patriots come from 17 down, top Dolphins, 27-24

FOXBORO Trailing 17-0 to the Dolphins after one half of atrocious play, it looked like the Patriots would need a Christmas miracle to turn things around.

They got it, coming back to beat the Dolphins 27-24, and clinching a first-round bye in the process.

Of course, its a lot more complicated than miracles. The first half saw Tom Brady (27-46, 304 yards, touchdown, two rushing touchdowns) on his butt, Logan Mankins (knee) on the sidelines, and Dolphins swimming around in the end zone.

With Matt Light a game-time scratch suffering from a leg injury, and Mankins following suit later, Brady was under constant pressure from the Miami pass rush.

"Matts ankle was he just wasnt able to push off on it, so we were scrambling around there," Bill Belichick said. "And then Logan Mankins played a few plays and then he went out, so we had to take what was left."

How could you sum up each and every New England (12-3) drive in the first half? Six punts and a missed field goal. Meanwhile, Miami was attacking through the air with Brandon Marshall (seven receptions, 156 yards, touchdown) and on the ground with Reggie Bush (22 carries, 113 yards). As the Pats headed into the locker room boos raining down it wasnt a question of if they were going to lose to Miami (5-10), it was by how much.

But then something changed.

------ STATS: Patriots 27, Dolphins 24 ------

The Patriots, quite frankly, were ticked off. They didnt necessarily come out with guns blazing in the second half, but an 11-play drive led to the first three points of the game.

There was life. The Pats were given an inch they took it. Then they took the ball back from the Dolphins.

Fins quarterback Matt Moore (17-33, 294 yards, three touchdowns, interception) fumbled on the ensuing possession and after Vince Wilfork fell on the ball, New England took over at Miamis 38-yard line.

"They made a mistake," Belichick said, "the ball bounced right to us, and we recovered it, so that was great."

We have been surviving on turnovers all year," Jerod Mayo said. "We just have to continue to grow. Those things always help our offense anytime they are struggling, which is seldom. But at the same time, turnovers always jump-start us.

Seven no-huddle plays later, Brady found Deion Branch (three catches, 37 yards, touchdown) in the back of the end zone, and it was 17-10.

The no-huddle offense just makes the defense hurry up and make a decision," Aaron Hernandez said. "We play so fast and we can do so many things that cause a lot of problems to a defense.

As panic set in for the Fins, so did confidence for the Patriots -- and comfort between Brady and his targets. On the day, Brady connected with Wes Welker 12 times for 138 yards. Tack on another seven receptions and 78 yards for Rob Gronkowski.

Both receivers were essential once again in the second-half surge put on by the Patriots.

Wes Welker and Tom Brady started clicking and when theyre clicking everyone starts clicking, so they got it going and we just followed their lead, Hernandez said.

After the Branch touchdown, a three-and-out for Miami would give the Pats favorable field position to start, at Miamis 41-yard line. With the no-huddle offense in full effect, the Patriots tied things at 17 just seven plays later as Brady rushed in for the touchdown.

The first half troubles were clearly over.

"We just didnt do a good job in any phase of the game in any area," Belichick said of the first half. "I know were capable of more than that and the players showed that. They responded. It wasnt perfect in the second half and we got a couple breaks, but we made a few plays on our own, so thats good. We were able to come out on top, but we dug ourselves a big hole there."

But Miami helped the Pats climb out of that hole. A deep pass from Moore intended for wide receiver Brian Hartline was picked off by Devin McCourty just shy of the end zone. In what seemed like a matter of seconds, Brady again in the no-huddle took the team from the two-yard line to midfield.

A few plays later, kicker Stephen Gostkowski put the Patriots up for the first time, hitting a 42-yard field goal with 9:00 to play to cap off the Patriots' 74-yard drive.

On their next possession, Brady and the Pats drove 59 yards in 11-plays before Brady rushed in for his second touchdown of the day and third on the season. That put the Pats up 27-17, and gave them a little wiggle room.

Brady wasn't the only successful rusher on the day. Stevan Ridley set the tone with 13 carries for 67 yards, coming up big on a number of important carries.

But that Brady touchdown turned out to be huge. On the ensuing drive, Moore drove the Dolphins 80 yards in just over a minute, finding Davone Bess for the touchdown to make it a three-point game, 27-24, with under two minutes to go and three timeouts.

That would be it though.

Brady found who else Welker for the first down that would enable the Patriots to run out the clock and seal the win.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.