The end of the 2012 regular season couldn't have worked out any better for the Patriots.
Thanks to the continued collapse of the Houston Texans and the Miami Dolphins' choice of complete capitulation over actually trying to win a game in cold, blustery conditions, the Pats rolled to a 28-0 victory and, more importantly, the bye week that comes with earning the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
This one was over early, with the Pats shaking off the first half rust that's plagued them the past two weeks and going to work on a Miami team which was clearly looking to get its season over with. The offense, which welcomed back Rob Gronkowski, was able to consistently move the ball on the ground, featured plenty of short passes and quick drops from Tom Brady in an effort to control the Dolphins' pass rush and got its best game from the big guys up front in weeks.
On defense, the line dominated Miami's front, completely squashed any hopes of a rushing attack and benefited from a mostly solid game by the secondary despite the absence of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard.
All in all, it was nearly a perfect confluence of events for the Pats, although the second quarter injury suffered by defensive co-MVP Rob Ninkovich will be something to watch between now and the Pats' divisional playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 13. Postseason tune-ups rarely work out as smoothly.
So with that, let's get into this week's report card.
Brady wasn't asked to do too much in this one which may have been planned ahead of time or may have come to pass thanks to how successful the running game was. He finished a solid but not dazzling 22-of-36 for 284 yards (7.9 YPA), a couple of TDs and a tidy 104.4 passer rating. There were a couple more sort of curious missed throws and some very visible frustration shown by Brady at the end of a couple stalled drives, even in the late stages after the outcome was pretty much determined. He also wasn't helped out by a couple of bad drops or the fact that Brandon Lloyd, dealing with a knee problem, was again mostly stuck in invisibility mode. But Brady at say, 80 percent is far better than what you get out of most QBs playing at their maximum efficiency which is why games like this one are just fine. No one is in better control of his team's offensive approach than Brady, no one is better at doing the little things (throwing screen passes, diagnosing defenses, knowing exactly when to get rid of the ball, etc.) than Brady and he was given so much time by his O-line at certain points of this game, he was able to stand in the pocket and survey the 300 seats while deciding what to do with the ball. He moved into second place alone in consecutive games with a TD pass and finished the season with another stratospheric stat line (4,827 yards, 34 TDs, eight picks, 98.7 passer rating). As good as it gets. Ho-hum.
Running Backs: 5
Any hemming and hawing from two weeks ago about Stevan Ridley's fumbling and Shane Vereen's blitz pickup issues and whatever else must be tabled for now. The Pats rolled up 167 yards on the ground at 4.4 yards a pop against the league's ninth-best run defense and mostly made it look easy. A majority of the runs by Ridley and Vereen (and even Brandon Bolden, who broke a great one in extended garbage time) came up the middle, where Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell were absolutely dominant. Ridley went over 1,200 yards for the year, finishing with 1,263, good for fourth best in franchise history, and scored two more TDs, giving him 12, just two shy of Curtis Martin's franchise record. Vereen made his eight carries count with 38 yards. And little Danny Woodhead continued his monster stretch with another huge game, piling up 97 total yards, most of which came on patented quick, shifty runs after catching screen passes. Woodhead has developed into the epitome of a third down back, assuming the mantle from Kevin Faulk and (no pun intended) running with it. He's still not necessarily a guy you want to see running it between the tackles. But it's hard to imagine anyone playing his role much better than he's played it all year, particularly since the second half of the 49ers game. On a team with so many offensive weapons, Woodhead stands out.
Wide Receivers: 4
Another eight grabs for Wes Welker, 94 more yards and another TD. He may be 31 now and he may also take more of a beating than any other receiver in the league but if the Pats don't find a way to bring such an outstanding, consistently excellent player back into the fold for at least the rest of Brady's time here, they will have really missed the boat. Naturally, every time the Pats needed a first down from medium to long-ish distance, Welker, simply got inside or underneath his man, caught a pinpoint pass from Brady and was off. On his TD, he followed Gronk and Aaron Hernandez's quick cross underneath patiently before releasing uncovered into the middle of the field for the easy score (how the Dolphins allowed him to be that open near the goal line is a scathing indictment on both their defensive personnel and coaching staff). And of course, he even threw in a nice punt return as well. With Lloyd (one catch, nine yards) continuing to be inconsistent and both Gronk and Hernandez still recuperating, it's beyond comforting to know the Welker is still there and still doing what he does best. 118 more catches give him 672 in his six years with the Pats. Not too shabby.
Tight Ends: 4
Gronk came back and while he pretty much played with one arm (watching him block like that was simultaneously awesome and terrifying), he still opened the offense back up the way few can. Gronk is such a mismatch for pretty much any defender that even when he's not the intended receiver, he can completely blow up whatever the opposing defense is trying to accomplish. Hernandez looked better, sharper and more explosive on Sunday and while some of that is surely health related, Gronk's presence for the 25 snaps he played opened up so much more room for him than he's seen the past five weeks (as it did for Welker too) that he had the kind of space to turn, plant and cut in a far more defined way than he has of late. Gronk got himself back into the end zone too (again, on a play the Pats run for him all the time, the seam route, which no Miami defender bothered to cover) and finished the year with numbers most tight ends dream about (55 catches, 790 yards, 11 TDs) in just 11 games. Hernandez did have another bad drop but again, he looked sharper and more healthy, both qualities that should only get even better with the week off. And ups to the two run blockers, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui, both of whom contributed to Ridley's TD runs, especially Fells.
Offensive Line: 4.5
If not for a handful of false start penalties, this would have been a perfect score in a runaway. If health has been an issue for this group over the past month or so (note: it has), you'd not really know it on the basis of this game. Brady had all day to throw, going down just once on a delayed corner blitz by Miami's Pat McCann. The Dolphins' D-line, especially pass rushing demon Cameron Wake, was silenced. The running game did work, again, mostly up the middle. Connolly shifted to fullback on both of Ridley's TDs and couldn't have blocked each of them any better. On every successful screen pass, it looked like at least three of these guys were out in front blowing people up ahead of Welker or Woodhead. Brady's obvious anger after getting the crap bat out of him against Jacksonville had to have an effect on this group, which responded. The week off will aid the O-line as much as if not more than anyone else on the team and Messrs. Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly and Vollmer really earned it with their performance on Sunday.
Defensive Line: 5
The Pats' best position in terms of depth, it really showed in this game. They were already dominating the line of scrimmage before Ninkovich went down, rolling up the first batch of their season high seven sacks and completely eliminating any trace of a Miami running game. The biggest beneficiaries of Ninkovich's absence were Justin Francis and Trevor Scott, especially Francis, who capped an excellent month with the best game of his career. Francis was all over the place, registering three sacks to go with one each for Scott, Vince Wilfork and Brandon Deaderick, another reserve lineman whose been better than usual lately (safety Derrick Martin had the seventh sack). Chandler Jones didn't have any of them but that was OK because this was his most active, havoc-causing, efficient game since before his ankle injury. It was a better than pleasant surprise to see him back looking like he did in the first couple of months, getting into the backfield, tipping passes at the line of scrimmage, etc., and if Ninkovich misses any significant time, knowing the Pats are set on the opposite end will be quite a comfort. Having the D-line play this well is so important for the rest of the defense. It opens up room for the linebackers to make plays and allows the defensive backs a lot more leeway in how they cover as well as cutting down on the amount of time they have to spend doing it. Naturally, it all starts with Wilfork and he was his typical enormous self in this game, setting the tone for the run stopping from the Dolphins' first offensive snap and finishing one of his best all-around seasons in style. Whether or not this unit's tremendous performance carries over to the game in two weeks or if missing Ninkovich (the defense's biggest playmaker all year) will really hurt remains to be seen. But it sure was a good sign to see things working so well up front in this game.
A quiet game for this group mostly due to the impact the D-line had and how that carried over. Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower played plenty but neither of them did much outside of Hightower's fumble recovery at the goal line on Reggie Bush's inexplicable third quarter fumble. Mayo again looked sort of lost in coverage a couple of times but mostly was solid. The biggest thing to take out of this group's evening was the Brandon Spikes, who has been dealing with a knee injury and missed last week's game against the Jaguars, was out there, but barely. With the line bottling up the Dolphins' running game and Miami subsequently throwing more than twice as many times as running it, Spikes was allowed plenty of time to rest, playing just eight snaps and leaving the nickel snaps to Mayo and Hightower. Having Spikes as close to 100 percent come the divisional round is crucial so add him to the list of guys happiest that the bye week fell into the Pats' laps. Mayo and Hightower were fine, just not terrific and in a game like this one when the D-line is in complete control, that's OK.
Defensive Backs: 4
Let's hear it for the secondary, which survived another week without its top two corners, having to move Devin McCourty away from his best position and using Patrick Chung in a regular role. The coverage in this game was excellent and while Miami doesn't exactly have a great passing game and featured some guy named Binns with hands of concrete at receiver, you have to like what you saw out of this group. A handful of the Pats' sacks and QB pressures were the result of the coverage downfield being so good, Dolphins' QB Ryan Tannehill was forced to hold the ball and roll out or move from the pocket more than he would have liked. The Pats mixed it up with plenty of man coverage, zone looks, corner and safety blitzes, and Steve Gregory patrolling center field nearly perfectly, playing very physically and with a huge INT in there for good measure. Kyle Arrington is still far better suited for slot duty but he played pretty well on the outside in place of Dennard and provided a textbook pass breakup as well as excellent underneath coverage on Gregory's pick. McCourty was beaten by Brain Hartline, the Dolphins' only legit receiver a couple of times, but mostly kept everything in front of him and never came close to allowing the big play. Tavon Wilson got some good run and made a couple of nice hits and although he was lit up by Bush on one pass play, Tannehill overthrew what should have been a TD by about four yards. Martin also played well, getting plenty of nickel snaps in the absence of Dennard and Marquice Cole and timing the pressure on his sack brilliantly. And Chung, happy to report, looked less like he was trying to think about what to do with the ball in the air and more like an actual, instinctive safety. He just missed an INT and never once looked like he was in any kind of danger of making the absolute wrong read or decision. Again, it's probably safer for the Pats to limit Chung's chances to look foolish but when they have to run him out there on the regular, it was nice to see him handle it well.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 4.5
Another very good day for the special teamers, who seem to have completely washed away the collective stink of the 49ers game. The wind was swirling, making the kicking game a bit difficult, something Belichick knew early on when he eschewed a 40-yard field goal attempt from Stephen Gostkowski and went for it on 4th and 6 on the Pats' first drive of the game. Miami coach Joe Philbin didn't follow suit, sending his kicker out to try one of similar distance to the same end of the stadium a few minutes later only to see the ball change direction about five times and ultimately miss. Still, our man Zoltan Mesko had a great game, booming a couple of kicks and dropping one, booted from well into Dolphins' territory, just 25 yards straight up in the air, landing it inside the 10. Coverage was good too, with Niko Koutavides dropping Miami return man Marcus Thigpen at the 6 on the second half kickoff standing out.
From a coaching standpoint, again, this game couldn't have turned out any better for the Pats. With the exception of the injury to Ninkovich (which we've since learned probably isn't that bad), everything fell into the right place, with the bye week, the ability to get away with another week without Talib and Dennard, using Spikes and Gronk but just sparingly and getting out of there with objectives achieved. Belichick stressed during the week that the Pats could control their eventual fate if they played well and won and while the Dolphins were certainly complicit in their own demise, the effort put forth by the Pats in all phases was very impressive. This was a dominant performance and not only was it very encouraging to see that under the circumstances, it can only help the team's confidence and general attitude heading into the playoffs.
This was the youngest team of the Belichick era and naturally, he did a masterful job handling it all year. The Pats' four losses were by a combined 11 points and this coaching staff had the upper hand pretty much every week with the lone glaring exception coming in the 49ers game. And with the next game certain to be played against a team the Pats have already seen this year (Houston, Baltimore or Indianapolis), you can bet that preparations to face any one of those squads have already commenced.
So let's hear it for the 2012 New England Patriots. 12-4, No. 2 in the AFC and currently enjoying a well-earned week off. Two more wins and they'll be getting ready for another Super Bowl appearance. In other words, just like always.