Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Patriots 28, Dolphins 7 (12/23/2007)

Looks like The Big Tuna's got his work cut out for him down there in Miami. The Dolphins got 4 turnovers (and lost none), won the battle for time-of-possession, and became the first team to shut out the Patriots in any half this year. But they are so bad, the Patriots beat them by 21 points, marking the 10th time the Pats have won by 21+ this year. The Patriots beat the 'Phins 28-7, sweeping the division for the first time in franchise history and going 1-0 for the 15th weekend time this year. With the #1 seed all sewn up, the win... well, it kept them in the habit of winning. But perhaps most importantly, they got out of the game without any major injuries.

(Note: I missed the last 7:45 of the game, so this update is based only on the first 52:15. However, rest assured that I will watch the end of the game before next week's contest with the NY Giants, and if anything in the fourth quarter changes what I think, I'll send an amended update later.)

There were reports that the Patriots practiced the running game last week, and it showed. Laurence Maroney had his best day as a pro, getting 156 yards and a long touchdown on just 14 carries. He had two runs of over 50 yards (51 and 59), and hit the hole quicker than he has most of the season. Kevin Faulk threw in 29 more yards on 7 carries, and fullback Heath Evans and the O-line did a great job of blocking for the run. They didn't do quite as well pass-blocking, with Pro Bowler Matt Light getting schooled by Jason Taylor several times and the Dolphins totaling three sacks and six quarterback hits.

And all that time on his back clearly affected Tom Brady. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, and was below 55% completions on the day. Not that it was all bad, he had a rifle throw to the sideline for a Jabar Gaffney touchdown, and he threw two others to Randy Moss (giving Brady 48 and Moss 21 on the season). The catches were pretty evenly distributed, with Moss, Gaffney, and Wes Welker each getting 5 apiece (which gave Welker 101 for the year, tying Troy Brown for the team record). But the team appears to be missing its tight ends. Both Ben Watson and Kyle Brady were out again yesterday, and with no one to help Welker in the short passing game, the offense sputtered in the second half. Both players will likely be back for the playoffs, and that should help a lot in the possession passing game.

The defense was the story of this game. Or was it Miami's inept offense? Whatever the case, twice on the day, the Dolphins drove the ball inside the Patriots five yard-line, and both times, the Patriots stopped them on fourth down. Miami had great field position three times in the game, and scored zero points on those drives. And if you think Tom Brady got knocked around, the Patriots got to Dolphins QB Cleo Lemon 20 times (7 sacks and 13 quarterback hits) in the game.

The D-line played very well, with 3.5 sacks total (1 each for Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green, and 1.5 for Ty Warren). Newly minted Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork didn't get the QB, but his value against the run was obvious when he was out of the game and Miami gashed the Patriots on the ground. Wilfork is likely playing less in order to be healthy for the post-season, and his presence is missed when he's on the sideline. Mike Vrabel (another Pro Bowler) had two sacks and along with Tedy Bruschi's improved play, the linebackers have adjusted well to the loss of Rosevelt Colvin. And Adalius Thomas is playing better, perhaps owing to being more comfortable with the very complex defense the Patriots use. (BTW, Rosevelt Colvin had trouble for most of his first year of full-time play with the Patriots -- and then he played much better in the playoffs and helped the team win the Super Bowl that year. So here's hoping that's the path Thomas is on.)

The secondary is starting to come on at just the right time, with tighter coverage and some fierce hits. Eugene Wilson, Ellis Hobbs, and rookie Brandon Meriweather all had big hits, and it's probably no coincidence that the Dolphins had at least five dropped passes. Since his return from injury, Wilson is playing much better, and that has allowed Rodney Harrison to improve his game, too. Rodney led the secondary with six tackles, and even with Wilson getting more snaps, third-string safety James Sanders contributed four of his own.

Punter Chris Hanson had one of the special teams plays of the year, booting a 64-yarder out of his own end zone just when the Dolphins were gaining momentum. And the kick coverage was excellent on both punts and kickoffs. Troy Brown made his first appearance of the year, returning several punts. But it was a less-than-triumphant return, given that he muffed one that Miami recovered. Fortunately, the defense bailed him out by holding Miami to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive.

So where does that leave us? At 15-0, they couldn't be doing much better, record-wise. Next week, they travel to New York to play a Giants team that has nothing to play for (their playoff position is set, win or lose). New York coach Tom Coughlin has already said his starters would play some but not the entire game, so the Patriots should have a good chance to win. The Giants do get after the quarterback well, so protecting Brady will be of the utmost importance.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: All year long, it's been offense, offense, offense, but believe it or not, the Patriots are tied with Tampa Bay for the best scoring defense this year (239 points).

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "The first thing Parcells has to do is find a quarterback. I mean, you can't win the turnover battle 4-0 and lose by 21 points. Their offense just stinks."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 15-0!

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