FOXBORO -- Devin McCourty knew he had to make a play. With two minutes left in the first half of the Patriots matchup with the Jaguars, he already felt as though he should have had a hand in three turnovers.
"It wasn't going too well," McCourty said on Quick Slants this week. "I had the strip-sack by Jamie that the ball bounced right by me on the fumble. Should've got on that, huh? There was a missed tackle, there was the opening play that probably should've been picked off, and a play over the middle that probably should've picked it off."
McCourty was frustrated with himself, of course. But a few words from Patriots coach Bill Belichick on the sideline helped give him a little extra motivation to get his hands on the football.
"The head guy, the guy they call Bill Belichick, he wasn't too happy when I got to the sideline," McCourty said. "I looked at Duron [Harmon] and was like, 'I probably need to make a play or I might get benched out here.' "
When he got his next opportunity, he made the most of it.
McCourty picked off Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles on the first play after the two minute warning, setting up the Patriots with good field position for a final drive before the break. Eight plays later Tom Brady found Danny Amendola for the 400th touchdown pass of his career, which gave the Patriots a 20-3 lead and plenty of momentum going into the second half.
Because they won the toss and deferred, the Patriots had an opportunity to score on back-to-back drives. Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal early in the third quarter to give the Patriots a commanding 20-point lead.
"It was a big play before the end of the half," Brady told WEEI on Monday. "We got a turnover. We really didn't have many possessions at that point. I think Josh [McDaniels] said with about six or seven minutes left in the half . . . We only had two possessions at that point, and he said, 'Look, we'll have two more possessions before the end of the half and then we start with the ball in the third quarter.' I said, 'Yeah, that sounds like 21 points to me.'
"Right then, we went out, we kicked a field goal, and I thought we might only have one possession. Then we got the interception from Devin, went down and scored. It ended up being a big turnover and a big two-minute drive before the half where we got the ball to Danny, and Danny made a great catch. Just one of those great situational plays. You never know which play is quite going to turn the game around."
McCourty's play helped the Patriots to their third win of the season, and it helped him get out of a mini-funk where he couldn't secure any of the turnovers being presented to him.
"I kind of needed that play," he said.
Here's how it broke down . . .
The Patriots were in their usual nickel set with Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan as the corners and McCourty, Patrick Chung and rookie Jordan Richards in as the safeties. The Patriots used a four-man front with Rob Ninkovich, Sealver Siliga, Dominique Easley and Chandler Jones, while Dont'a Hightower and Collins played off the line.
It was first-and-10 with the Jaguars on the Patriots 45-yard line, and Bortles -- as he's known to do -- wanted to go deep. He sent tight end Clay Harbor in motion from left to right, which dropped Richards down closer to the box and left McCourty as the single high safety.
"I think we're always thinking that [we'll have chances at a turnover], especially as the game goes through the first quarter and into the second quarter," McCourty said. "We know if we defer, we know we get the ball to open up the second half. We always know, the more we can get our offense the ball and try to get points on the board before the half . . . they come out and get points again, Bill always says that's what separates the game. It happens that fast."
As the play developed, Chung, who was lined up with tight end Mercedes Lewis on the left side of the formation, ran with the 6-foot-6 target straight down the field. Bortles looked that way early in his progression and seemed to lock on.
After McCourty got about 10 yards into his drop, he watched as Bortles wound up, and he broke to his left.
"We talked about it," McCourty said. "Watching the game against Miami the week before, they decided, you know, 'We gotta get the ball down the field. We gotta take some shots.' Robinson did a great job of making some plays, but we knew we were gonna have some opportunities to go out there and make plays."
The Patriots rushed four, and Bortles was provided a stable pocket as he hit his back leg. Ninkovich, however, provided some pressure off of the left side. He whacked the arms of right tackle Jermey Parnell to Parnell's sides and bent around the edge in order to have a shot at Bortles.
Sensing the pressure, Bortles stepped up and stepped into his throw.
Bortles got a little too much oomph on his pass, sailing it over the head of Lewis, and into the outstretched arms of McCourty.
The Patriots are now plus-three in the turnover differential department, giving them the fourth-best mark in the league through three weeks. Last season they were second in the league in turnover differential (plus-12), behind only Green Bay (plus-14).
It's something Belichick's teams harp on every year, and it's something Belichick mentioned in his radio interview with WEEI earlier this week.
"When we don't have the ball," Belichick said, "we try to always be alert to find an opportunity to get it. Whether that's a strip or reading the quarterback and trying to take the ball away when it's in the air, trying to cause turnovers. We work hard on that . . . You can't really win until you can keep from losing. The plays that cause you to lose, turnovers, penalties, mental mistakes, giving up big plays on defense and in the kicking game, until you can eliminate those, it doesn't matter who you're playing, you're probably not going to do very well."