The Rearview Mirror - Nine Observations From Week 17
New England finished the regular season with a 35-14 win against the playoff-bound Dolphins in Miami. Except for two Dolphins’ touchdown drives on either side of half time, the Patriots’ easily controlled the game from start to finish. The win gave New England the best record in the AFC (14-2) and an 8-0 record in road games this season.
Devin McCourty’s forced fumble in the shadow of his goal line ended the competitive portion of the game. Photo by David Silverman and published by Patriots.com
Devin McCourty (team high seven tackles) effectively sealed the game with a textbook tackle and strip of Damien Williams midway through the 4th quarter. Miami had success passing to their running backs – Williams and Jay Ajayi – on the edges of the defense, including a third-down conversion to a wide-open Williams in the right flat for 16 yards in the 3rd quarter. Back to the key play: McCourty’s quick convergence on Williams made it appear the Patriots were expecting Miami to test the flats again.
Credit linebacker Shea McClellin for picking up the loose ball McCourty created and returning it 69 yards to set up the Patriots’ final touchdown of the day. New England’s first take away came on an interception by Logan Ryan in zone coverage on a pass intended for tight end Dion Sims. On that take away, defensive end Jabal Sheard got past right tackle Ja'Wuan Jamesto force quarterback Matt Moore to scramble left, where defensive end Jake Long was waiting to continue the pursuit to the sideline.
Like the Patriots, the Dolphins often ran “rub routes” with two- or three-receiver groupings near the line of scrimmage to free up Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, or Jarvis Landry(who combined for 18 catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns). The Patriots countered with what looked like zone coverage most of the game. Landry’s touchdown at the end of the 2nd quarter – in which he absorbed a big goal line hit byDont’a Hightower, regained his bearings, and then jetted around Patrick Chung’s tackle attempt at the left pylon – was as tenacious a “football play” as one will see.
Running back Jay Ajayi came into the game averaging 5.0, but the Patriots limited him to 3.7 yards per on 16 carries. Alan Branch hitJermon Bushrod, pushing the right guard backwards, and made the tackle for loss on Ajayi on his first snap of the game. Twice in the 3rdquarter, Trey Flowers took on Laremy Tunsilwith good leverage, shed the left guard’s blocks, and knocked Ajayi down at the line of scrimmage. But Ajayi showed his skill in the 3rdquarter: Cutting outside right end and past a diving Malcolm Butler, then sluffed offHightower’s high tackle attempt for an eight yard gain up the right sideline.
The condition of the grass field was a factor in the game. Dion Lewis slipped in the red zone to stop a promising run in the 2nd quarter; kickerAndrew Franks nearly fell over when he slipped on a kickoff in the 2nd; and safetyBacarri Rambo slipped when trying to tackleJulian Edelman on the receiver’s 77-yard catch-run-and-score in the 3rd.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ play calling on the Patriots’ first drive of the game was as diverse and unpredictable as we’ve seen all season: Five pass completions to five different players (39 yards), six running plays by three different players (28 yards), and even a third-and-six quarterback scramble conversion. Recently claimed receiver Michael Floyd was set up for his 1st quarter red zone slant: Chris Hogan’s route cleared out the seam and play action to LeGarrette Blount froze the linebackers. After the catch, it was all Floyd. He spun and fought through four Dolphins for the impressive touchdown.
Speaking of notable offense debuts, On Edelman’s 3rd quarter, 77-yard touchdown, New England showed a new look: A three wide receiver grouping with Dion Lewis and James White both aligned shallow behind the tackles. In the 2nd quarter the Patriots twice pulled guardJoe Thuney for misdirection – simulating a power run right – before the running backs cut back for decent gains over the left side.
On the left side of the line, Joe Thuney struggled against Miami’s mountainous lineman Jordan Phillips. Near the end of the 3rd quarter, Phillips ran through Thuney to the inside and upended Blount behind the line of scrimmage, and a few minutes later he threw the Patriots’ guard out of the way to tackle Lewis for a loss. Early in the 4th, Thuney picked up a holding call when he was beaten on a pass rush, and later Phillips’ swim move to the outside of the guard hurried a Tom Brady incompletion.
On the right side of the line, Shaq Masonpulled cleanly to pick up a blitzing Bacarri Rambo, to give Dion Lewis a path for four yards on the goal line in the 1st quarter. Later in that quarter, Mason and Marcus Cannon combined to overwhelm tackle Earl Mitchell, allowing Lewis an eight yard gain. On New England’s final touchdown in the 4th, Mason and Cannon again doubled at the point of attack, takingNdamukong Suh out of the play, and allowing Blount to get his 18th touchdown of the season. Also credit to fullback James Develin for nicely corralling linebacker Kiko Alonso to allow Blount to score.
…And One Comment about the Division Round. The next step on the path to Super Bowl 51 in Houston starts Saturday night against an accomplished Texans’ defense. The Patriots’ success is going to hinge on how the offensive line plays, especially left tackle Nate Soldier against Jadeveon Clowney (6.0 sacks) and right tackle Marcus Cannon matching up with Whitney Mercilus (7.5 sacks). On the inside, the guards and center will have to contend with linebacker Benardrick McKinney (5.0 sacks) and, of course, former long-time Patriot, Vince Wilfork.