Hats and t-shirts for everyone. The Patriots captured the AFC East title, their sixth straight and 11th in 12 years, with a 41-13 win over terminal bridesmaids the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The offense bounced back from a wretched first half to roll up 27 unanswered points in the second and the defense held Miami to 3-for-16 on third down and just 106 total yards after the break.
There were a few missteps in the sluggish first two quarters but not enough to ever lend any real doubt to the eventual outcome. The Pats need to keep winning to hold off Denver for the No. 1 seed in the AFC and this game was an impressive step in that direction. So with that, let's get weird with this week's report card.
PARTY IN FOXBORO! pic.twitter.com/SwjRfIG9gg— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) December 14, 2014
OVERALL GRADE: B+
OFFENSE - Here’s the thing with the Patriots’ offense that became pretty evident as they ran off 24 third quarter points and effectively ended the game.
It’s not they need to commit more to the run, it’s that they need to commit more to the threat of it. Obviously, they have an all-time QB and plenty of weapons including arguably the best tight end who ever lived. There’s no problem with them wanting to take advantage of all that.
But their offensive line, while better and certainly more stable than it was in the season’s first month, has backslid somewhat, with left guard Dan Connolly either hurt or ineffective or both (Connolly, who left with a neck injury, is currently the lowest ranked pass blocking guard in all the NFL according to Pro Football Focus).
So make life easier for them. Get into play action sooner. Stop trying to outguess the opposing defense and let the guys up front get into a rhythm. As we’ve seen before, including at the start of the second half of this game, everything opens up from there, including and especially Rob Gronkowski.
You may have noticed that Tom Brady's 34-yard pass to Gronk that opened the third quarter was off play action. As was his TD pass to Julian Edelman. As were a handful of other plays in the second half that went for nice gains. And those plays, combined with the different dimension brought by the unshackled Jonas Gray, allowed the Pats to run the Dolphins right out of Gillette Stadium in the second half.
Gray is a faster, shiftier back than LeGarrette Blount and runs much more like Stevan Ridley, making him a perfect complement. That doesn’t mean he’s better or even should get more snaps. It simply means that the Pats shouldn’t be averse to using him more often than never, as his 62 yards on 11 attempts (5.6 YPA) will attest. It’s not really a coincidence that his entrance into the game worked in conjunction with the offense waking up.
Brady was skittish in the first half and that definitely contributed to the slow start. But in the second half, when he was able to manufacture more time thanks to Gray and the more frequent use of play action, he blew up. He saw the field better (perhaps due to a bowl of avocado ice cream in the locker room?) and threw the ball more confidently - the perfect example being the dart he threw to Gronk for his TD.
And of course, his 16-yard run, which became one of the most famous in football history in the hours following the game, didn’t hurt either in terms of waking the entire offense the hell up.
Luckily for the Pats, they were playing the Dolphins, who always find a way to lose games like this one even when the opposing team is practically asking them to hang around. Such first half shenanigans won’t fly come playoff time so the Pats had better get that cleaned up. The third quarter of this game should provide a blueprint on how. GRADE: B
DEFENSE - There were a few missed tackles and the unfortunate use of Malcolm Butler in man coverage out wide against the Dolphins’ best receiver on multiple occasions. But other than that, it was another dominant effort by the defense, which, in case you haven’t heard or have simply forgotten, is the best the Patriots have had in 10 years.
In the past four games, the #Patriots have yielded a combined six points in the second half.— Erik Frenz (@ErikFrenz) December 14, 2014
Impressed? The Pats have been better in the second half than in the first on the whole for several weeks now, but the defense really ratchets things up after halftime. They've outscored Detroit, Green Bay, San Diego and Miami, their last four opponents, 54-6 in the second half. The only TD they’ve allowed post-intermission in the last six weeks was a catch by Indianapolis offensive lineman Anthony Costanzo (!!!). If you are trailing at the break against New England these days, you can pretty much forget about coming back.
Everyone out there is either a playmaker or a difference maker, particularly up front. Chandler Jones (1.5 sacks, two QB hits, four hurries, forced fumble) came back so Akeem Ayers just played about 20 fewer snaps than he’s been averaging, they provided a different look when on the field together and no one missed a beat. Dont’a Hightower looked exactly as dynamic as he did before he hurt his shoulder in Green Bay. Jamie Collins was beaten badly on a shoulda-been TD pass down the sideline but he also got himself into the backfield to harass Dolphins’ QB Ryan Tannehill to the tune of three hurries and was solid against the run. And Rob Ninkovich (sack, two QB hits, five hurries) was his usual self, both as a pass rusher and dropping into coverage.
The Pats are so versatile up front that they can line Jones up over the guard and have him rush inside with Ayers or with Ninkovich on the outside. The return of Sealver Siliga (second straight excellent game), along with the continued improvement of Alan Branch, makes it that much more difficult for opposing runners to get past the first level. That opens up more space for Hightower and Collins to operate and take some burden off of Vince Wilfork, whose looking quite spry.
All this and we haven’t even gotten to the secondary, where even Duron Harmon is making impact plays. His pick and 60-yard return stopped a Miami drive and set up the Pats’ first offensive touchdown. Darrelle Revis wasn’t the same wide receiver vaporizer as he normally is, but that was mostly because Tannehill just didn’t throw near him all that much. Patrick Chung also had an interception and Brandon Browner set it up while somehow avoiding getting called for yet another penalty. And when Kyle Arrington went down with a hamstring pull and Logan Ryan came into the game (more so to replace poor Butler, who got no coverage help on Wallace), he acquitted himself just fine, which was a welcome and comforting development.
The offense’s explosion in the third quarter made life easier for the defense, which could really open things up and get more aggressive with a big lead to protect. And that’s what’s most exciting about this group as a whole, the amount of depth and skill and versatility that then allows Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia to get creative and run so much stuff. Now that everyone’s healthy, it should be a real treat to see what they come up with next. GRADE: A-
SPECIAL TEAMS/COACHING - Another week, another blocked kick. This time it was Collins jumping out of the gym to swat a first quarter attempt right into the waiting arms of Arrington, who ran it back for a TD. And while the Dolphins would have you believe that the formation wasn’t legal, so as to distract everyone from the fact that they were blown out in another big December game, the more pressing point here is that the Pats have elevated special teams play to an art form this season and it’s a major factor in their overall success.
It wasn’t all awesome for the Pats on this front. Miami got a big punt return at the end of the first half that contributed greatly to a big mess (see below) but otherwise all good on this front. The field block and return clearly served as the highlight but don’t forget Stephen Gostkowski, who passed Adam Vinatieri for first place on the Pats’ all-time scoring list with a third quarter field goal and finished the game with 1,165 career points. Great stuff, just as it’s been from each of the core special teams units all year long.
As for the coaches, just as was the case for many of the players, it took a little while for them to hit their stride. Belichick admitted as much when asked about the fiasco at the end of the first half when he was undressed by Dolphins’ coach Joe Philbin. But he and Josh McDaniels came up with the right formula in the second half with Gray and play action and of course, Gronkowski (two targets, zero catches in the first half).
We’ll see if the success the Pats enjoyed in the third quarter leaves a mark on McDaniels moving forward. He’s been just a little too cute the past three weeks and it may have something to do with the residual effects of the Pats’ 34-9 win over the Lions in Week 12. Detroit’s fearsome run defense led to a pass heavy game plan and the Pats blew the doors off with Brady throwing 53 passes against just 20 called runs.
Again, the Pats have proven over and over and over that they are a better, more effective offense when they are more balanced, and the contrast from the first half to the second on Sunday shined as bright a light on that fact as at any time all year.
That being said, McDaniels is better than most offensive coordinators across the league (imagine having the guy in Chicago right now. Or Marty Mornhinweg of the Jets). He and Belichick and everyone in the entire operation made the requisite adjustments and we all saw the results. No need to fret -- the Pats are just fine and well on their way to a serious run. GRADES: SPECIAL TEAMS: A-, COACHING: B