FOXBORO -- The Patriots needed a spark.
Their 11-point lead had been cut to three with just over 10 minutes left in the game. Their defense had been put through a meat-grinder of a series by the Dolphins offense -- 11 plays, 80 yards -- that ended with a tough Jordan Howard one-yard plunge and a Ryan Fitzpatrick two-point conversion.
It was very much a game. And the Patriots had themselves to blame, in many ways. They'd turned over Miami twice but couldn't score off of either. They'd missed a field goal. They'd fumbled at the goal line.
They needed an offensive spark. They needed to keep their defense off the field. They needed to score to help put the game away.
Luckily for them, Josh McDaniels had been doing the play-caller equivalent of whittling sticks together over the course of three quarters and cooked up an ember that would help the Patriots win the game when they put the ball in Julian Edelman's hands in the fourth.
Here's how the Patriots got to the Turning Point in their 21-11 win over Miami...
It began early in the first quarter. McDaniels called upon one of his favorite motions -- "missile" motion, a full sprint across the formation just before the snap by one of his receivers -- and had Cam Newton hand the football off to Sony Michel. N'Keal Harry, the missile man, was tracked by corner Xavien Howard.
Notice in the video above, Howard had a hard time keeping up with Harry across the formation as he navigated traffic at the second level of the Dolphins defense. Miami, under coach Brian Flores, is a heavy man-to-man team and so that's just the cost of doing business when there is motion. Gotta stick with your man, however you can.
It's an issue, though, if defenders start picking each other off just to keep up with their coverage assignments. With a crowd of three off-the-ball defenders in the middle of the field on the above Rex Bukhead run, Edelman went in motion and brought corner Jamal Perry with him. Perry promptly ran into linebacker Elandon Roberts and just about took Roberts out of the play.
Perry ended up peeking into the backfield as Newton made the hand-off -- his defense had been gashed by up-the-gut runs of all varieties to that point in the game and so it made sense he wanted to help -- and he actually chipped in on the tackle as Edelman coasted to the opposite side of the formation.
Perry appeared to be peeking in at Newton again before the above throw to Ryan Izzo. He followed Harry in coverage, but he slowed down as he got to the middle of the formation while Harry continued to sprint. Just . . . checking . . . to see if the Patriots were running it, Perry was. They weren't, and when Perry realized, he got on his horse to catch up with his man-to-man assignment.
Collisions. Hesitation. McDaniels must've spotted something he liked when he called for those missile-motion looks with Newton under center. If the Dolphins were going to linger in the middle of the field instead of sprinting with their coverage assignments pre-snap, McDaniels -- an attention-to-detail stickler -- was going to take advantage.
Perry was tracking Edelman on the first offensive play of the fourth quarter for the Patriots. When Edelman took off, he had to make a choice. Should he stick with Edelman? Should he stop and help his linebackers? Perry was unsure, clearly, from the video.
When Newton handed to Edelman -- who was limited in the game from a snap-percentage perspective (both Harry and Damiere Byrd played more) and appeared banged-up after certain plays -- Edelman had a head of steam and an angle to pick up 23 yards.
“It was a counter end-around and no one was there," Edelman said. "'I tried to get up field and make some yardage and try to get out of bounds. He hit me a little late. It was something that our coaches probably were keen on, seeing how we were handling things here and there with certain motions and that was a good play call by Coach McDaniels and the team."
The Dolphins helped the Patriots by hitting Edelman late out of bounds, turning the play -- three quarters in the making -- into a whopping 38-yard gain. The Patriots went from their own 25-yard line into Dolphins territory in a blink.
"Anytime you set up a game plan, you try to have complementary plays in the plan," Bill Belichick said Monday. "So, if they’re taking away a certain thing, then theoretically you have something else to complement that that they would have trouble defending or that they’re not taking away.
"Josh does a great job. Josh is an outstanding offensive play caller. He does a great job of mixing things up, setting things up and also recognizing how the defense is adjusting to certain [things], whether it’s formations or the deployment of individual personnel or how their adjustments with certain defenses.
"You have sometimes one way to adjust it, but sometimes you can have more than one way to adjust it, and you want to identify offensively which method they’re using. Josh totally understands defenses. He’s coached on defense. He knows how defenses operate and what their choices are. If they choose one, they’re vulnerable having not chosen the other one in certain areas."
McDaniels still had plenty of choices of his own to make to finish off the drive. He sent an option pitch to James White for seven yards. Later a quarterback sweep got the Patriots down near the goal-line. A Newton dive soon thereafter converted a fourth-down attempt, and Sony Michel punched it in for a score on the next play.
"That was big," Newton said. "That was big. Coach Bill always talks about being mentally tough. So at that time we knew it was favorable for us to be mentally tough in that situation, not allowing the moment to be too big for us. That's just a feel-thing.
"I'm just glad that those guys still trust in me to have the ball in my hands in that particular situation and for the offensive line to sell out like they have done, man, over the last, not just today, but over the last couple of weeks, man. We have just been becoming a very tight knit group that each and every opportunity like we had today is just going to keep making us better."
One week down. McDaniels will now have to continue to come up with complementary plays, as he did with the Edelman end-around, to keep teams off-balance. And until his latest wrinkles are unveiled, a region of Patriots fans will collectively lean in, turn down the corners of their mouths, shoot their eyebrows skyward and ask, "What's next?"