FOXBORO, MA -- Devin McCourty must have asked Santa for an interception this Christmas.
The cornerback picked off Matt Moore in the fourth quarter of New England's 27-24 win. It was an important play: the score was tied at 17 and Miami was driving into Patriots territory. Moore, who successfully hung up 294 yards on the opposing secondary, looked downfield to where Brian Hartline was streaking toward the end zone.
The ball went up...
It came down with McCourty at the New England 2.
"Felt pretty good," he smiled after the game. "Finally got a chance to get one and reel it in. It was a big play, helped the team out big time."
His use of "finally" is appropriate. It's taken McCourty 16 weeks -- 13 games because of the separated shoulder -- to nab a pick after tallying seven in his 2010 Pro Bowl season. The sophomore slump is old news by now, so much so that the inconsistencies are one of the most consistent aspects of his play.
But also unfailing? His attitude. A good one.
Despite the cloud of negatives overshadowing each individual positive, McCourty has remained accountable. He has spoken to the media on behalf of the secondary after every loss. He's answered every question about surrendered yardage and pass interference penalties (this week it was on third-and-12). Not once has McCourty shown frustration or impatience.
He views the season as a fight that's far from over.
"That's the life of playing corner," he shrugged. "You make a play and then they come right back and make a play. I think you just keep battling. In the secondary you're always going to go against that.
"When you play this position you kind of tell yourself that your whole career. Today wasn't the first day I got beat in my career and it won't be the last. You've just got to keep playing."
Fans and media alike are quick to heap criticism on McCourty for the drop-off. He knows he deserves it; a guy can't rival Ndamukong Suh for defensive rookie of the year then return as a defensive liability the next season.
Unfortunately, that's what he now resembles. For each person who mentions McCourty's interception there will be 10 clamoring to list each of Miami's big gains. Like the fourth quarter 41-yard bomb Moore delivered to Brandon Marshall on third-and-10. That play was more than half the distance of the entire drive, which ended in a touchdown and brought the Dolphins within three points.
Marshall finished with 156 yards and a touchdown -- the bulk of his damage done on McCourty's side.
So it goes.
The reality is, McCourty's rookie campaign was good enough to give him a long leash. It's likely the Patriots' biggest worry is preserving his nucleus of confidence, and that means riding out the waves. How does McCourty handle it all? He's buoyed by teammates.
After coming down with the interception McCourty scrambled to his feet and high-stepped to the sideline, ball tucked under his right arm. Linebacker Rob Ninkovich was there around the 20. The pair met with a thunderous bump in mid-air.
Ninkovich recalled the celebration with a smile. The relief wasn't just McCourty's.
"As a defense we all lean on each other. An NFL season is tough... you've got a lot of ups and downs. You've got to have that team camaraderie, everybody around you staying positive."
It hasn't been easy. But as McCourty will tell you, that's not why you fight.