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Patriots Report Card: Lesson learned in Miami

January 3, 2017 GMT

PATRIOTS 35, DOLPHINS 14

A year ago, the depleted Patriots went to Miami and lost home-field advantage in the playoffs, and it cost them dearly. They had no intention of repeating that mess.

The offense dominated the first half of Sunday’s game by attacking Miami’s injured secondary (three starters out), while the defensive front shut down Jay Ajayi — the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher at 1,272 yards — early, putting the load on backup quarterback Matt Moore and a corps of talented but not always reliable wide receivers (hello Kenny Stills) to keep pace with Tom Brady. No chance.

The result was a 35-14 win that was a bit closer than the score indicates, but it was a wide enough spread to give the Pats playoff games at home until the Super Bowl.

QUARTERBACK: A-minus

Tom Brady was 6-for-6 on the first drive of the game and led the team to 20 points on its first four possessions. The key to his three-touchdown performance was his ballhandling. With the running game working early, Brady was able to use deftly executed play-action fakes to freeze Miami’s linebackers and secondary, both of which were littered with backup players. This opened up wide passing lanes, and Brady repeatedly found his receivers. At the end of the first drive, Brady’s fake handoff drew Donald Butler toward the line, with the safety shading tight end Martellus Bennett to the outside. Bennett ran a post for an easy 2-yard touchdown. Brady was high on a few throws, as he’s been a number of times the past few weeks, but not very often. He seems to be adjusting to the size of new receiver Michael Floyd, hitting him for 9 yards on a high ball. He also caught the Dolphins in an all-out, seven-man blitz on third-and-7 in the third quarter at his own 23 and got rid of the ball quickly to Julian Edelman on a short hook, knowing the reciver would at least get to the sticks. Edelman made backup safety Bacarri Rambo miss and turned the short throw into a 77-yard TD that stifled Miami’s hopes of a second-half comeback four plays after they’d closed the margin to six. Brady was 25-of-33 but threw only nine times in the second half, hitting six. They all counted.

RUNNING BACK: B

Facing a tough front, the backs shared the load. LeGarrette Blount pounded out 51 hard yards on 14 carries, and Dion Lewis added 48 on 11 attempts. Lewis made two tacklers miss on an early 4-yard swing pass that could have been a 6-yard loss. Elusiveness is his gift. Lewis bounced a run to the outside that was designed to go over left guard late in the game, turning no gain into 12 yards. The Pats ran 10 times for 65 yards on their first two drives (both touchdowns), with Blount accounting for 36. This established the running presence that allowed those play-action fakes to work in the passing game. It’s a great example of the complimentary football Bill Belichick often talks about.

WIDE RECEIVER: A

The receivers made big plays, and Michael Floyd was involved in most of them. His 14-yard touchdown catch on a shallow cross was sharply run, and then he lowered his shoulder and ran through four Dolphins tacklers. Floyd also made Julian Edelman’s 77-yard touchdown possible with a bone-crushing block on cornerback Tony Lippett. Floyd hustled to follow the play and blew him up, knocking him out of the game with a perfect shoulder hit and no helmet contact. His one mistake was a mental one when he didn’t know he was supposed to shade two steps closer to Edelman on a pass route on the opening drive. Both Tom Brady and Edelman were hollering but he didn’t react, and they burned a timeout. Edelman had his own brain cramp despite his career-high 151 receiving yards when he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. He needs to watch the chippiness or someone is going to decapitate him. Worse, he gets that kind of selfish penalty in a playoff game and puts him team in a costly second-and-25 situation. Being a punk is not a sign of toughness.

TIGHT END: B

Martellus Bennett blocked effectively in the run game and finished with three catches on five targets. Several times he quickly realized where the open spaces were in Miami’s secondary and got to them. He was beaten to the inside gap early on a running play that was stuffed for 1 yard, but later he put a perfect block on linebacker Spencer Paysinger that helped spring LeGarrette Blount on his longest run, 19 yards. Bennett also made a solid block on defensive end Terrence Fede to help Dion Lewis’ 8-yard run on which the left side of the line just blew out Miami’s front.

OFFENSIVE LINE: A

Facing a tough front, this group negated the presence of tackle Ndamukong Suh, who can be a game-wrecker, with tough work from center David Andrews and guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney. The line also kept Tom Brady completely clean, allowing no sacks and only one hit. You can’t ask for more than 4.1 yards per carry in the running game and an upright quarterback on 33 pass attempts. Brady deserves credit for getting the ball off quickly, but doesn’t he always? Mason and tackle Marcus Cannon blew away the defensive left side on a Dion Lewis 8-yard run. Andrews and Mason double-teamed Suh at the point of attack and negated him on LeGarrette Blount’s 19-yard gain. Tackle Nate Solder was solid as well, and Thuney held his own, although he also held defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, negating a 14-yard completion to Chris Hogan, and was beaten by Phillips on a running play that lost yardage. No rookie is perfect. Thuney and Cannon allowed Phillips and defensive end Cameron Wake to pressure Brady into an incompletion, but that was an exception to a terrific day by the line.

DEFENSIVE LINE: A-minus

They were unable to generate a sack or all that much pressure on Matt Moore, but that’s partly because the Dolphins used a short, quick passing game after their early struggles. Still, the line shut down one of the NFL’s best runners in Jay Ajayi, holding him to 59 yards on 16 carries. The Pats’ 20-0 lead certainly helped, as it made Miami more one-dimensional, but these guys had to hold up while that lead was being built. End Trey Flowers made back-to-back run stuffs early, the second on a stunt looping behind tackle Vincent Valentine. He also made a critical play when he pressured Moore into rushing a throw after running back Damien Williams badly beat linebacker Kyle Van Noy for a potential big gain. Tackle Alan Branch slapped down another pass and again was solid against the run. So was Valentine and later Malcom Brown, who emerged from the doghouse later in the game and played soundly. End Rob Ninkovich isn’t making as many plays as he did before his suspension, but he made a saving tackle on receiver Jarvis Landry after a 13-yard catch, pursuing the play and tripping him up. He also hit Moore’s elbow as he was throwing toward an open receiver on a third-and-6 incompletion. End Jabaal Sheard didn’t make a tackle but flushed Moore on Logan Ryan’s critical interception.

LINEBACKER: B-minus

Rookie Elandon Roberts had seven tackles and a spring in his step after a few weeks on lockdown as Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin received more playing time. Roberts made a nice tackle on a Jakeem Grant jet sweep, cutting the receiver down before he hit the edge. Dont’a Hightower was in on 41 snaps to lead the linebackers, but on Jarvis Landry’s second-quarter touchdown, he tried to block the receiver down rather than wrap him up. Van Noy blew coverage on receiver Kenny Stills’ 25-yard TD that cut the lead to 20-14. He was looking for safety help from Devin McCourty, who was forced deep by another receiver, and Van Noy let Stills get open behind him before he realized it was his man. Van Noy was also beaten by Damien Williams, but Trey Flowers pressured Matt Moore into unloading early. One more second and Williams is in the end zone. McClellin was in the right spot when McCourty forced Williams’ critical fumble at the Patriots 5, scooping the ball up on one hop and returning it 69 yards to the Miami 18, effectively icing the game.

DEFENSIVE BACK: B

This was not a perfect day, but the unit made two game-changing plays. The first was Logan Ryan’s interception on a play that could have been a big gain. Kenny Stills ran a short route and then stood around when he thought the ball was going in the other direction. When Matt Moore was flushed from the pocket and rolled his way, Stills took off then stopped at the 45. Ryan smartly dropped back and snared the ball when Moore’s pass came down short between Stills and tight end Dion Sims. The defensive backs consistently tackle well, seldom giving up extra yards, which was important after Miami went to a hurry-up offense and shallow crosses. The Dolphins scored some points, Ryan’s pick and Devin McCourty’s forced fumble negated those successes. Corner Malcolm Butler was consistently successful in coverage. Ryan had his ups and downs, getting beat on third-and-7 for 8 yards by Jarvis Landry. One play before McCourty sealed the game with his forced fumble, Patrick Chung couldn’t’ prevent 6-foot-3 receiver DeVante Parker from getting position in front of him for an 18-yard catch that created first-and-goal at the 6. That’s when McCourty came up from his safety position and jarred the ball loose from Damien Williams as he tried to curl inside. Shea McClellin scooped it up at the 13 and was on his way.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus

Once again there were too many errors. Both Justin Coleman and Geneo Grissom were flagged for holding on punt returns, the former negating Julian Edelman’s 34-yard run and the latter forcing the Pats to start at the 9-yard line. Why so many errors of this type keep happening needs to be explored in the offseason. Stephen Gostkowski missed a 52-yard field goal just before halftime, but the footing was bad. It didn’t seem to be a return to his earlier wayward ways, but it did go wide right, which was ominously familiar. Otherwise he hit attempts of 26 and 40 yards and three extra points. He did seem to have less control on his kickoffs, bashing 5-of-7 for touchbacks rather than just short of the goal line, but the coverage teams allowed very little. Very little also was what they got from their own return teams, with the exception of Edelman’s negated 34-yarder.

COACHING: B-plus

Many teams might not have reacted well to sitting on the tarmac for three hours before their flight left for Miami, turning Saturday into a day-long trek. Instead of forcing late meetings when players were tired and probably irritable, the staff shifted them to Sunday morning and got their attention, as that 20-7 first half made clear. They didn’t react quickly enough to Miami’s shift to an up-tempo, short passing attack but eventually figured it out. With Miami in three-receiver sets after falling behind, the Pats abandoned their three-safety defense aimed at stopping Jay Ajayi in favor of three corners. It all worked, and Ajayi’s longest run of the day was 11 yards. Offensively they attacked a secondary weakened by injury with 24 first-half passes and then controlled things with the run in the second half, throwing only nine times. To be fair, they also only had the ball for 10 minutes in the second half while controlling it for more than 21 in the first. In the end, the decision to attack Miami’s weakened secondary allowed the Patriots to control the tempo of the game, forcing the Dolphins to win with Matt Moore’s arm instead of Ajayi’s legs. Not a good formula.

HEAD OF THE CLASS

Devin McCourty: His forced fumble at the Patriots 5 created a potential 14-point turnaround.

Shea McClellin: His 69-yard return of that fumble put the Dolphins’ upset chances on ice.

Michael Floyd: Powerful 14-yard TD was big. Crushing block on Julian Edelman’s 77-yard TD was even bigger.

BACK OF THE PACK

Julian Edelman: Selfishly childish penalty for head-butting Bobby McClain is Cleveland Browns-type stuff.

Kyle Van Noy: Blew coverage on Kenny Stills’ 25-yard TD and was harmlessly yet badly beaten by Damien Williams.

Justin Coleman and Geneo Grissom: Both were flagged for holding on punt returns, creating poor field position.