As nice as 40-50 point games and 20-30 point wins are, sometimes you just have to take a game the hard way. When things aren't working properly on multiple fronts, the best teams are the ones who can deal, adjust and win anyway.
Such was the case with the Patriots on Sunday in Miami, where they were pushed and knocked around and taken out of their comfort zone by the Dolphins but still managed to earn themselves a 23-16 win and clinch their 10th AFC East crown in the past 12 years. while running their December record since 2001 to an astonishing 42-5.
The Dolphins knew their only chance to beat a team averaging almost 50 points per game over its last four was to slow things down, run the ball and play defense. They almost succeeded. Tom Brady didn't play particularly well nor did the offense as a whole. But the Pats got a very good all-around performance from their defense, made enough plays over the course of the first three-plus quarters to stay a step ahead and then closed Miami out with one of their most impressive drives of the year.
It sounds a bit odd to say but the Pats needed a game like this one. Unless you're playing Tim Tebow and the lousy Denver defense at home for the second time in less than a month, playoff games are not usually scoring extravaganzas. They are tough, intense, physical fights predicated on one team being able to make just a play or two more than its opponent and coming out on top of a close contest. Kind of like what the Pats faced against the Dolphins, who will be a force in the AFC East as their rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill grows and matures. That Miami defense is no joke, which every Patriots' player starting with Brady would likely tell you.
A win is a win, no matter how ugly. But sometimes, like on Sunday, the uglier ones are actually the most beautiful of them all. So with that, let's get to this week's report card.
Not exactly Brady's best game as his personal house of horrors also known as Sun Life Stadium did him no favors once again. Neither did the Dolphins' defense which for a long stretch of this game dominated the line of scrimmage and forced Brady's usually dependable offensive line back onto its heels. That Brady was never able to get into a rhythm wasn't a complete surprise; the injury problems on the O-line have been masked somewhat over the past handful of games by virtue of the Pats' opponents having lousy front sevens. Miami, on the other hand, has a terrific front four and a couple of excellent linebackers and those groups were able to take considerable advantage of the guys up front for the Pats either playing hurt or having to replace those who couldn't go at all. Brady, who was beat up to the tune of four sacks and seven more knockdowns, was able to make a few plays anyway. He did throw a TD pass to keep his streak of doing that in consecutive games alive, a perfectly executed slip screen to Wes Welker that Brady audibled into upon seeing the Dolphins selling out for a run play was. And his fourth quarter sideline throw to Aaron Hernandez that gave the Pats a 1st and goal at the 2 was an absolute dime. He was the victim of a couple of drops, one by Welker in the end zone. And while he did throw a pick for the first time in 202 pass attempts and the throw was a bit of a force, give credit to Dolphins' safety Reshard Jones, who had a monster game, for making a tremendous play on the ball and nearly getting points out of it if not for a block in the back on the return. Brady made enough things happen when he had the time and got out of there with the Pats' sixth straight win. Surely, he'll take it.
Running Backs: 4
For the majority of this one, the running game was nowhere. Miami came in sporting an impressive run-stopping pedigree so perhaps the Pats felt like spreading them out then springing the run on them as a bit of deception was the way to go. It didn't really work too well in the first half; the Pats ran the ball just seven times for 11 yards before halftime and when they did run it, too often the plays were sent to the edges, where the Dolphins' team speed allowed them to contain Stevan Ridley. In the second half though, there was much more balance. Even though they were without both Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly again, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald and Marcus Cannon were superb at guard in that second half and Ridley took advantage. The fourth quarter march was domination. The Pats lined up big, essentially telling Miami ahead of time that they'd be running the ball and then did just that, cramming it right down the Dolphins' collective throat on a 16-play, 77-yard drive that took 7:18 off the clock and effectively ended the game. Ridley ran the ball 11 times for 46 yards on the drive with seven of those runs either up the middle or off guard. It was a clinic and Ridley proved once again, both on the drive and in the first quarter when he somehow got into the end zone despite the 2-yard run getting blown up almost from the snap, that he is the best running back the Pats have had since their last Super Bowl winning season. Congrats to him for going over 1,00 yards for the year in just 12 games. Elsewhere, Danny Woodhead was brought out of mothballs and responded with a couple of nice plays both running and catching the ball. And Shane Vereen, who was the third backfield option, continued to display toughness and speed. Running back is a real position of strength for the Patriots and this game was a reflection of that.
Wide Receivers: 3.5
If not for Welker, where would this group be? With Julian Edelman hurt yet again and Brandon Lloyd clearly being ignored (whether by Brady or the coaching staff), Welker is once more a one-man army at the receiver position. Naturally, he was tremendous against the Dolphins, posting a huge game (12 catches, 104 yards, TD) despite a) dropping a TD pass, and b) being one of only two guys Brady bothered to look for pretty much all game long. Typically, Welker did most of his work inside, picked up big yards and first downs when needed and got the bag beaten out of him but he just kept bouncing up and keeping going. For all of Edelman's talent, which was on display most visibly in the wins over the Colts and Jets, the idea that he will soon be Welker's replacement when he can't play two games without getting injured while Welker just goes on and on and on no matter what, is slightly laughable. Whatever, we'll see what happens with that situation come the springtime. Meanwhile, Welker is now over 1,000 yards for the fifth time in six seasons and will more than likely go over 100 receptions for the fifth time in that span next week against Houston. He is an amazing player who never ceases to impress. As for Lloyd, he threw a nice block to spring Welker on the TD and his tiptoe sideline catch on the fourth quarter drive was a humongous play that he's proven over and over he's more than capable of making. But there's no question he's falling off the radar, as his one target in 60 snaps will attest.
Tight Ends: 4
The Pats caught a huge break getting Hernandez back just as they were losing Rob Gronkowski. Given Gronk's absence. Edelman's inability to stay on the field and Lloyd's slide down the depth chart, where would the pass offense be without him to play sidekick to Welker? He was the second option in the Pats' two-man passing game in this one, catching eight balls for 97 yards. We know how much the Pats like to play with two-TE sets and when Gronk comes back we'll see how this offense is even more dangerous and explosive when he and Hernandez are out there together. But even playing with Daniel Fells, who is basically an extra O-lineman who had just one or two passes thrown his way the past two weeks, Hernandez has still been able to be effective. He showed signs of being close to all the way back, cutting, spinning and running with more speed, power and precision than at any point since his Week 2 injury. That deep sideline catch in the beginning of the fourth quarter was a spotless play with him selling a run block then rolling to open space and taking Brady's pass for 31 yards. Prior to the big fourth quarter drive, he and Welker were the Pats' offense. It's good to have him back.
Offensive Line: 3.5
Sebastian Vollmer needs a hug. The guy has been the Pats' best O-lineman all year and gutted it out on Sunday despite his chronic back issues. He was owned more than once by Dolphins' pass rushing demon Cameron Wake, picked up a bad holding penalty and really looked like he was laboring for long stretches. The Pats got away with sitting Vollmer against the Jets and their non-existent pass rush. But they couldn't hide him or his injury against Wake and company and that could be a problem again against the Texans. Here's hoping he gets some quality healing done with the extra day the Pats have before that game. Nate Solder can't point to any injuries as an excuse for his lackluster game and his up-and-down season continues. Still, even though he's been inconsistent, the potential is obviously there and he hasn't cost the Pats anything. This group, which bottomed out when the Pats had 1st and goal following the Hernandez sideline catch and then allowed two sacks in three plays, picked itself up in a major way on that game-sealing, possibly season-defining fourth quarter drive. Ridley ran well on most of those plays. But he wouldn't have had nearly the room to maneuver had it not been for the interior lineman, Thomas, McDonald and center Ryan Wendell, who has quietly posted an excellent season. It was so refreshing and such a comfort to see the Pats line up, play smash mouth football and do it so well, especially in the fourth quarter of a game played in the heat and humidity of South Florida. Now that we know they can do it, even when depleted by injuries and against a very good defensive line, it's easy to feel great about this team's chances going forward.
Defensive Line: 4.5
What a game for this group, which was thinned out even more last week thanks to Jermaine Cunningham's suspension. Trevor Scott, the third string end behind Cunningham and Chandler Jones, started the game, played his most snaps of the year and made them count. Scott had two sacks and got to Tannehill another time while even looking solid in coverage on a couple of snaps. Scott's presence and freshness seemed to fire up the rest of the line, with Kyle Love playing his best, most active game in a few weeks and Brandon Deaderick coming out of nowhere to make a few tackles and affect the rhythm in the Dolphins' backfield. Rob Ninkovich had a quiet day for him and bit badly on a play fake by Tannehill before the QB ran in his team's only TD. And of course, Vince Wilfork anchored the whole thing. He recovered a fumble forced by Scott and handled Dolphins' guard Richie Incognito like he was a doll when the two were matched up one-on-one. Whether he was playing the run or getting some push and causing pressure when Tannehill dropped back to pass. As he's been all season, Wilfork was the best player on defense for the Pats in this game and his play, along with Scott's, set an excellent tone.
Mark it, dude. Jerod Mayo made his best play of the season and one of the defensive plays of the year for the Pats on his fourth quarter blitz and sack. Down by 10, the Dolphins had driven well into the red zone and were knocking on the door with a 3rd and 4 from the 7. From the gun, Tannehill dropped back and Mayo briefly waited to see where the running back would go in pass protection then exploded through the line untouched and buried him to force a field goal attempt. The play was not only perfectly timed and executed by Mayo, it was a fantastic, ballsy call by the defensive coaching staff. Mayo had a very good game otherwise, but it was that play that made the day for the defense and helped keep momentum on the Pats' side. That game-sealing drive came on the heels of Mayo's sack, more proof that the timing of the play was impeccable. Mayo deserves a ton of credit. Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower were each a little quieter but each was solid, especially Hightower, who drew a couple of more sub coverage assignments than he normally does and looked OK even when he had to stay with Reggie Bush out of the backfield. The kid looks like he's figuring it out and the coaches seem to have faith in him. That can only help as he continues to mature as a pro.
Defensive Backs: 3
This group was good but also lucky that Tannehill is limited as a passer at this early point in his career. There was more than one play on which someone, whether it was Aqib Talib or Steve Gregory, was out of position but Tannehill simply missed a wide open receiver. The Pats even suffered yet another communication breakdown on a deep ball with Talib hung out to dry with no safety help over the top, but they escaped when Tannehill overthrew Brian Hartline. This secondary has made some big strides in its last couple of games and while Sunday wasn't a step backwards, it was evidence that with an offense like that of the Texans next on the schedule, there may be a lot of hold your breath moments come Monday Night Football. Big ups to Kyle Arrington, who is clearly so much more comfortable playing in the slot than on the outside and smothered Dolphins' receiver Davone Bess, who has been a Patriots killer in the past. Arrington also nearly registered a sack on a well timed corner blitz in the third quarter and looked like a different player than he has for most of the season. This is what the Pats are more than likely going to run with for the rest of the year - Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Devin McCourty and Gregory with Arrington playing the slot and Patrick Chung as the sixth DB (and while we're here, Chung's yearly four-week injury along with his continued inability to make a tangible impact seems to have sunk him, even more so because he's a free agent after the season). It's still a work in progress and there are sure to be more growing pains. But even when its not keeping up with the rest of the D like on Sunday, this secondary remains far superior to what it was.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 4
Another missed field goal for Stephen Gostkowski and even though this one was a 49-yard bomb and it's still too soon to really use much energy worrying about him, it would nice to stop having to address this issue so much. Our man Zoltan Mesko had a good day and survived being roughed in the second quarter, a penalty that led to Welker's TD. And Matthew Slater had a terrific game, showing why he's the special teams ace, making the hit after a botched snap on a Dolphins' punt in the first quarter which led to the Pats' first score and then making a couple of big hits in the return game.
From a coaching standpoint, this one started out a bit strange but wound up fantastic. The Pats were so out of whack on offense in the first half, it's a wonder they made it to halftime with a lead. The plan to spread out the Dolphins and throw, throw, throw made some sense given the numbers. But with such a strain on the O-line against a team with such an active defensive front, it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to completely abandon the run the way they did early on. Give Bill Belichick and his staff a big thumbs up for recognizing this, though. The running game was enormous in the second half, especially on the last drive, and that kind of adjustment won the game for them.
As far as the defense is concerned, there's no doubt that the added emphasis Belichick himself has seemed to put on that side of the ball is paying off. They just look different on D, playing more aggressively, and adding more wrinkles by the week. The results are there. They've given up 59 points in their last three games which is progress. And even though they were even in the turnover department thanks to Brady's pick, they were able to add another one to their league leading total while forcing three other fumbles all of which were recovered by the Dolphins.
This defense looks like its going places. And the offense showed that it can win a tractor pull as well as a track meet. The next two games will ultimately define this regular season for the Patriots. But the 2012 AFC East champs are in solid position headed into such a crucial stretch.