Monday, December 15, 2014

Patriots Dominate Dolphins, 41-13

The Patriots barely held serve in the first half and then ran away with the game in the last 30 minutes, topping the Dolphins easily, 41-13. The win gives the Patriots their sixth consecutive AFC East title, guaranteeing them a home playoff game (yay!), and kept them ahead of the pack for the #1 playoff seed in the AFC. Next up is the team's last regular season road game, in New York to take on the Jets -- which won't be as easy a game as people probably think.

Bill Belichick's crew got off to a very shaky start this week. Miami's first play from scrimmage was a 50-yard bomb to Mike Wallace. And the halftime stats would lead you to believe it was a Dolphins blowout from the start. They ran 40 plays to the Patriots 28, got over twice as many first downs (16 to 7), had twice the time of possession (20:00 to 10:00), nearly three-times the total yards (271 to 102), and were averaging 14.1 yards a completion.

However, the Patriots got big plays in each of the first three quarters to keep themselves in the driver's seat. And it just so happened that those big plays came from each unit, and they held the game in the balance until the Patriots took over in the last 25:00.

In the first quarter, special teams came to the rescue. Linebacker Jamie Collins hopped over a lineman and blocked a field goal, which was returned for a touchdown by cornerback Kyle Arrington. It was huge, because the Dolphins had driven right down the field, and to hold them to the FG attempt and then do the 10-point turnaround instead was a key early play.

In the second quarter, the Dolphins were on the move again, when the defense was heard from. Safety Duron Harmon intercepted a pass and returned it to the Miami eight yard-line. Three plays later, running back Shane Vereen sliced in for a touchdown, making it a 14-3 Patriots lead in a game the Dolphins had dominated statistically.

As the third quarter began, it was 14-13 Patriots, and it was the offense's turn to put their stamp on the game -- not with one play, but with three big ones. The first play of the second half: quarterback Tom Brady looked off the safety and threw a 34-yard dart to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady was almost sacked on the next play, but as he was being dragged down, he threw a short pass to running back Jonas Gray -- turning a potential second-and-14 into second-and-3. Five plays later it was third-and-eleven, and Brady scrambled for 17 yards, his longest run of the season. Next play, touchdown, a 21-13 lead, and the Patriots never looked back.

In the first half, the defense barely held it together, playing the bend-but-don't-break style that drives so many fans crazy. But it did keep them in the game by giving Miami fits once they reached the Patriots side of the field. Three field goal attempts and just one late touchdown (which was really more on the coaches, but more on that later), had to have been frustrating for the Dolphins.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower was back after missing the Chargers game with a shoulder injury, and he was up to his old tricks, tearing up offenses from every angle. He had 8 tackles (1 for a loss), 1/2-sack (for 5.5 yards), two QB hits, and a forced fumble. He also made sure tackles to end drives and was only beaten once in pass coverage that I saw. Collins was all over the field, and it appears teams are starting to look for him and run plays the other direction. That's how much of a mismatch he has become.

Another injury returnee was lineman Chandler Jones, and he had a major impact right away. They deployed him inside instead of on the edge, and he responded with 1.5 sacks (for 21.5 yards), 7 tackles, 2 QB hits, a forced fumble, and he disrupted multiple plays in the backfield. Given the recent return of Sealver Siliga, who had a sack of his own yesterday, he and Jones provide a big boost, with fresh legs and attitude.

Oh... and stalwart Vince Wilfork has fully recovered from last year's achilles tendon injury, as evidenced by his busting through double-teams to make tackles yesterday. Rob Ninkovich still gets exploited in the passing game some, ever since Green Bay exposed the Pats scheme with running backs and the wheel routes. But he held up okay yesterday, and contributed a sack and three QB hits of his own. This will be a formidable group as the Patriots move into the playoffs.

The secondary was hot and cold. Two interceptions, six passes defended, and multiple safety tackles short of first downs was hot. Cold was five plays of 20+ yards, including the 50-yarder to start the game and a 32-yard touchdown with 11 seconds to play in the first half. There's no excuse for either, though the second is even less forgivable than the first. Malcolm Butler was victimized on the 50-yarder, and looks somewhat lost down-to-down. It's tough to call it a good day when Ninkovich and Wilfork have more passes defended that you.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis did is usual excellent job, shutting down the main Miami receiver to whom he was assigned. Brandon Browner had five tackles and some big hits, but almost gave Miami a free first down in the fourth quarter with a silly unnecessary roughness penalty (it was nullified when a Miami player taunted Browner). He had two other penalties, and it's unclear whether the attitude he brings offsets the 15-50 yards a game he gives up on penalties.

On offense, it was also a tale of two halves. The Pats first drive ended on an interception, and their only scoring drive of the first half was an eight-yarder after the Harmon interception. But in the second half, they went touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, end of game. I've often scolded offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for poor halftime adjustments, but he did a great job yesterday, especially given how good the Miami defense is.

Brady went 21 of 35 (60%), 287 yards, 2 touchdowns, that one interception, zero sacks, and a 93.4 QB rating. But the zero sacks mask the problems in pass protection. Officially he was hit five times, though it seemed like he was under pressure a lot more than that. And his first half was nothing to write home about, three tipped balls and at least two others under thrown. He also overthrew receiver Brian Tyms on what could have been a long touchdown in the third quarter.

Once Brady turned it around, the offense got humming again, especially Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman. After a few weeks in a downward trend, Edelman has been on fire the last two weeks, following up his big game against the Chargers with 7 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. Among those catches were five first downs and two that left the team with third-and-one. And Gronk didn't have to bowl anyone over yesterday, instead he split the defense up the seam in the second half for all three of his catches (for 96 yards, a 32-yard average!).

The only concern with the passing game is it's becoming very Edelman/Gronkowski/LaFell-centric. That's what has hurt them the last few years in the playoffs; not having enough established weapons for the other team to worry about. Running back Shane Vereen is a threat of the backfield, but they team could really use more consistent help from Danny Amendola or Brian Tyms.

Speaking of the running backs, it didn't take LaGarrette Blount very long to develop some bad habits. In the first half he danced in the backfield too often, not running the play as designed. So he sat to start the second half, and old friend Jonas Gray got the call. He responded with 11 carries for 62 yards, and was effective running into the spot the play was designed for. One negative on the backs, there was a lot of pressure on Brady, and some of that was missed assignments or poor blocks by the backs.

The offensive line did not look great. Even when the offense turned things around after the half, there was still too much pressure on Brady, and the running plays looked good more because they added a sixth lineman and/or had Gronkowski blocking. It's bad news when your best blocking lineman is actually your tight end... food for thought, Josh McDaniels.

Special teams turned in yet another special play, with the Collins block and Arrington return for TD. It was the Patriots' second of the year, and came (appropriately enough) the week Chandler Jones was back on the field (he had the other blocked-FG return against the Vikings in week 2). Punter Ryan Allen also had a great game, with a 60-yard bomb and two punts that were downed inside the 20. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski wasn't up to his usual standard, though both his bad kickoffs were into the wind, so it's possible it was stronger than was reported.

The coaching wasn't great to start the game, and gangbusters after the break. The curious run-run-run play-calling to end the half allowed the Dolphins to get a last-second touchdown. And the team should have been better prepared for the blitz/man-press scheme Miami used -- they *always* use that to great effect, so the Patriots should have been ready for it.

But whatever they did to make halftime adjustments, they need to do more of that. After the game it was obvious that Belichick was unhappy with his team's performance. This game tape should give him plenty of humble pie to serve in the film room later today.

So where does that leave us? 11-3 has them running away with the division and tied for the best record in the NFL. But don't count your chickens yet. Their margin in the AFC is razor-thin, and the Jets could give the Patriots trouble this weekend. Remember: they almost beat the Pats in week 7 in Foxboro, and this game is in New York. And their head coach, Rex Ryan, absolutely hates the Patriots and would like nothing more than to beat them before he gets fired at season's end.

A defensive guru with an axe to grind and nothing to lose is a dangerous opponent. In fact, the Patriots should emphasize that Gronk and Edelman get down after catches, because it wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Jets going after players. That's how much bad blood there is in this rivalry. Also, after the seven-game gauntlet the Pats just worked through, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see a letdown against the lowly Jets. Here's hoping Belichick has enough ammo to keep his team on their toes for two more Sundays.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: The Dolphins shutout the Patriots in the second half of their week 1 encounter, and the Patriots returned the favor, pitching a shutout against Miami in the second half yesterday. (Trivia question: since Belichick became head coach, name the only division team that has *not* traded second-half shutouts with the Patriots in the same season.. answer below.)

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Hats and t-shirts are nice, but a faster offensive start would go a lot further in the playoffs."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 11-3!

Since 2000, the only AFC East team that has not traded second-half shutouts with the Patriots is the Indianapolis Colts. Oh... did you forget again about the Colts being in the Patriots division in the 2000 season? For shame, I reminded everyone earlier this season :P

(For the record, the Bills and Pats traded second-half shutouts in 2003, the Dolphins this year and in 2006, and the Jets in 2010.)

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