Monday, January 2, 2017

Patriots Finish Strong, Beat Dolphins 35-14

The Patriots won an easy one yesterday, taking the last game of the season 35-14 in Miami. The win gives them a 14-2 record, and 8-0 road record, and the #1 overall AFC playoff seed. They will rest next weekend and take on the Raiders, Texans, or these same Dolphins at 8:15pm on January 14 (NFL just announced the schedule).

The game started out as a laugher. The Patriots dominated time of possession (21:16 to 8:44) en route to a 20-7 halftime lead. And even though Miami made it close, the Patriots defense shut them down and pulled away for the lopsided final score.

By holding Miami to just 14 points, the Pats posted the best scoring defense in the entire NFL: 250 points allowed on the year. (Trivia question: name the last year the Patriots gave up the fewest points in the league. Answer below.) And though the pundits have disrespected the D, they are clearly playing their best as the team heads into the playoffs.

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia managed an in-season sea change on defense. In the past, linebackers almost always led the team in tackles. But this year, defensive backs hold the top three spots: Logan Ryan (92), Patrick Chung (91), and Devin McCourty (83). And yesterday, Ryan picked off a pass and made some key tackles, while McCourty changed the game with his forced fumble early in the fourth quarter.

Trey Flowers dominated along the defensive line. His five tackles and two QB hits led the D-linemen, and he forced early throws or QB movement in the pocket on multiple plays. Alan Branch (two tackles, one pass knocked down) and Malcom Brown stuffed the run effectively -- the Dolphins gained just 3.3 yards per carry.

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower is clearly still nursing a knee injury. But Elandon Roberts (seven tackles and a QB hit), Rob Ninkovich, and Shea McClellin filled in admirably -- especially McClellin's fumble recovery and 69-yard return to set up the Patriots last touchdown. It's nice for Hightower to have the help; but the team will need him to get healthy in the next two weeks if it expects to make a deep playoff run.

The offensive balance was impressive. They ran 29 times and passed 34 times, and play-action passes were especially effective, as the Dolphins overcommitted players to slow down the running attack.

Running back LeGarrette Blount led the team with 51 yards, but his running mate, Dion Lewis, was even more impressive: 48 yards on 11 carries. The two make a great combination, with Lewis attacking small creases inside or bouncing outside and Blount hammering defenders with is size and strength. Blount set a Patriots record, and led the NFL, with 18 rushing touchdowns. And Miami's preoccupation with him opened up at least two touchdowns throws.

Those two touchdowns were the easy pitch-and-catch to tight end Martellus Bennett and receiver Michael Floyd's "catch and plow through six defenders" touchdown. Floyd is fitting in well, catching jump-ball throws and slants on-time and in stride. He's picked up the offense so quickly it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see a back-shoulder throw.

But even with those two plays, the receiving star of the day was Julian Edelman. He had eight catches for 151 yards, accounted for five first downs, a two-point conversion, and caught a scintillating 77-yard touchdown. The TD was a short pass where Edelman outran all but one defender, who was crushed on a huge block by Floyd.

And of course, none of this machinery works without the quarterback. Tom Brady excelled in this game, especially given how much pressure he was under in the second half. His stat line: 25 of 33 (75.8%), 276 yards, 3 touchdowns, no interceptions, and a gaudy 130.4 QB rating. He even added a first-down run on the opening drive, just to keep himself humble. Brady ended up second in the NFL with a 112.2 QB rating for the season (Atlanta's Matt Ryan took the crown).

On special teams, kicker Stephen Gostkowski did miss a field goal; but it was from 52 yards to end the half, so perhaps he can be forgiven. Even with his mid-season hiccups, Gostkowski made 84.4% of his field goals on the year. And the kick coverage teams and punting were their usual excellent selves.

Punter Ryan Allen ended up seventh in the league with a 41.3 yard net average per punt. And in 287 career punts, only one has been returned for a touchdown. (Trivia question #2: can you name the team that returned that punt for a touchdown? Answer below.)

So where does that leave us? The Patriots play their first post-season contest at 8:15pm on January 14. So they should enjoy the show next weekend as the other contenders bash each other to bits while the Patriots get as healthy as they can. Hightower, Bennett, and Brady should get extra special rest and treatment.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Trey Flowers was a one-man wrecking crew along the defensive line.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Brady set yet another NFL record with a 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Not sure how many more records there are for him to break.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "No matter which teams they played, you can't turn your nose up at leading the NFL in fewest points allowed."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 14-2!

PPS. Trivia answers:

1) The Patriots gave up 238 points in the 2003 season to lead the NFL. Note: they also won the Super Bowl that year.

2) The Philadelphia Eagles blocked a Ryan Allen punt and returned it for a touchdown during the 2015 season.

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