Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Patriots show off late-season form with dismantling of Dolphins

By Mike Jones

November 27, 2017

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Not even a full minute had gone by, and the New England Patriots found themselves facing fourth-and-8 from deep in their own territory.

It didn’t look like it to anyone else, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick saw that play from the 27 with 14:12 left in the first quarter as a crucial point of the game.

He called for a fake punt. Upback Nate Ebner took the direct snap, ran around the right end and gained 14 yards and the first down. Four plays later, the Patriots found the end zone on the first of five touchdowns in a 35-17 victory over the visiting Miami Dolphins.

“I thought it was big,” Belichick explained. “We took the ball to start the game, got a three-and-out but instead of giving the ball back, we were able to convert on fourth down ... ended up scoring on that drive. It’s always good to play from in front and get ahead, so it was big.”

The Patriots very well still could have trounced the Dolphins to improve to 9-2 on the season while extending their win streak to seven games. But the play indeed sparked New England offensively and energized Belichick’s players.

The very next play after the fake punt, running back Dion Lewis picked up 13 yards on a run up the middle. The play after that, Tom Brady threw a 39-yard play-action pass to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, and two plays after that, running back Rex Burkhead scored from 2 yards out – one of two on the day – to give New England a 7-0 lead.

The Patriots found the end zone again seven minutes later when Brady connected with tight end Rob Gronkowski for the first of two touchdown receptions on the day. Indeed, the Patriots were rolling, and the Dolphins had no answer.

New England went a perfect five-for-five in the red zone. The offense generated 417 yards – including 196 on the ground as Lewis led the way with 112 yards on 15 carries. Brady notched four touchdown passes. The defense recorded three takeaways, and limited Miami to just 10 offensive points.

“We’re steady growing,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “It’s like this every time. New pieces start fitting in. We start the season slow, finish fast. We start peaking after Thanksgiving. This is how it always is for us. This is all I know.”

Butler and a number of his teammates described Sunday’s victory as one of their most complete performances of the season.

It wasn’t perfect.

Miami got its first touchdown when early in the second quarter, center Ted Karras sent a shotgun snap back to Brady when the quarterback wasn’t looking, and Dolphins safety Reshad Jones scooped the ball up at the 14 and trotted in for the score. And Brady threw an interception later in the second quarter while forcing a throw to Danny Amendola.

But the Patriots proved resilient. A nine-play, 78-yard scoring drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to Burkhead followed the Dolphins’ defensive score. And although Miami took the interception and threatened to score after moving the ball to the 15-yard line, New England’s defense cleaned up the mess. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore picked off Matt Moore’s pass to deny the visitors with 16 seconds left in the first half.

“There was some kind of crazy plays there, like the fumble that kind of let them back in the game,” Brady said, “but I’m glad we kind of showed some mental toughness and kept grinding and made some plays when we needed to. Defense made a bunch of plays all day, so that’s what we’re going to need.”

Indeed, New England’s defense gave the Dolphins fits all game. A forced fumble and interception, plus seven sacks (six in the second half) and a 1-for-3 showing in the red zone, gave the Patriots reasons to smile.

It marked the seventh straight game in which New England’s defense has held an opponent to 17 points or fewer, a feat only four other teams have managed in the last decade. And for a unit that early in the year looked like the Achilles’ heel of this team, such a streak proves encouraging.

“Like I said, we’re steady growing,” Butler said. “We just know we need to stop people from scoring points to win. We’re just really big on the red area. That’s how we start off OTAs, training camp we start working on the red area. It changes the game – four-point plays down there.”

Meanwhile, Lewis and his offensive linemen drew similar encouragement from their contributions. Everyone knows that this is Brady’s offense. But the running backs and linemen relish the opportunity to pound the rock early and often.

The 196 rushing yards represented a season high, and the 112 rushing yards gave Lewis the first 100-yard game of his six-year career.

Belichick and his players talked about a need to eliminate some of the lapses in execution that slowed their production. But as a whole, the Patriots say they're rounding into form at just the right time. Sunday began the first of a three-game divisional run. Road games at Buffalo and Miami follow the next two weeks, followed by a road clash with the Steelers, a rematch with the Bills and the season finale against the Jets.

“With five games to play, it’s a good place to be, and we just have to keep showing up and put the work in,” Brady said.

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