Sunday, January 1, 2017

Patriots Stomp Dolphins; Secure Top Seed, Homefield Advantage

The Miami Dolphins did what they always do.

Against the New England Patriots on Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins got off to a slow start, but somehow managed to stick around and cut a three score deficit down to one early in the third quarter and had the Patriots in a third and long at their own 23 yard line, and the Miami fans in the stadium could feel the momentum shifting towards their Dolphins.

Then the Patriots did what they always do.

Julian Edelman caught a quick out from quarterback Tom Brady just across his own 30 yard line, made a quick move to the inside, eluding a weak attempt at an ankle tackle from Bacarri Rambo and split a pair of defenders who apparently thought Rambo would bring Edelman down - one of whom absorbed a savage hit from New England Patriots receiver Michael Floyd...

...a blindside job that liquefied Lippett's extremities and opened up the rest of the field for Edelman's 77 yard touchdown catch and run - Edelman saw the hit coming and even felt compelled to shift into an extra gear that he wasn't sure he had, because there wasn't much separation between him and Lippett, and Edelman didn't want any part of what was about to happen behind him.

Floyd had been working downfield, and when he saw Edelman split the defenders he took the angle toward midfield, where he collided with Lippett and left him prone and drooling on the Dolphins logo while the Patriots celebrated in the end zone.

Just like that, the score was 27-14, then 35-14 moments later as the Patriots' offense converted a seventy yard fumble return by linebacker Shea McClellin into a short LeGarrette Blount touchdown rumble, and the Patriots were headed back to Foxborough with the number one seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs, and fourteen days to prepare for their first opponent.

Floyd's posterization of Lippett was only the final act of his coming out party with the Patriots, as earlier in the game he had several key blocks in the running game, then executed a textbook in-cut to score his first touchdown for his new team, catching the ball just inside the Dolphins' ten yard line, cutting into a gaggle of defenders massed at the five, then fought his way to the end zone in an impressive display of strength.

The game was an encapsulation of how the season has gone for both teams.  For Miami, they always seemed to dig a big hole for themselves, but were able to hang around and crawl out of those holes ten times coming into Sunday's tilt with the Patriots, who always seemed to get out to fast early leads, sleepwalk into the room at halftime and stumble back out, then recover in time to score a decisive blow.

The pudding of proof  for the Dolphins lies in the fact that they have played so many one score games this season - ten of their sixteen, to be exact - that they could just as easily have been playing for a division title as playing out their string, with the latter being the more believable of the two. Four of Miami's six losses have been by more than two touchdowns, while only two of their wins have been of the same margin.

New England, on the other hand, had only four games decided by two scores or less, and were 3-1 in those games, their average margin of victory a robust 12 points despite scoring at a clip of 27.5 points per game - their lowest average points per game since the 2009 squad went for 26.5 - the 35 points scored against the Dolphins on Sunday representing their second highest point total of the season.

How they ended up winning fourteen games isn't exactly a secret, however, as the two main factors being their incredible balance in their offensive attack, and the resiliency of their defense - and both were on full display at Hard Rock Stadium.

New England opened the game with two consecutive touchdown drives, leaning heavily on the running game in each. Six of New England's 13 play calls on the first drive were handoffs to either Blount or Dion Lewis - ending in a Martellus Bennett backline score - and three of the five plays run in the second drive went to Blount exclusively, culminating in Floyd's power play - the combined 59 yards on the ground representing nearly half of the Patriots' rushing yards for the game.

In fact, the Patriots had 94 rushing yards in a first half that they dominated, and only 26 in a second half in which is was more about the defense coming up large, despite once again giving up huge chunks of yardage, only to stiffen when it mattered most.

The New England defense forced five punts on ten Miami possessions and caused two turnovers, the second of which sealed the game for the Patriots.

Following the Edelman touchdown, the teams traded punts on four consecutive series before the Dolphins got something proper started to begin the fourth quarter, driving to the New England nine yard line and threatening to shave their deficit down to a single score again - but on second and goal, safety Devin McCourty punched the ball away from Miami passing back Damien Williams...

...linebacker Shea McClellin scooping up the loose ball in the left flat and rumbling down the left sideline to set up New England's final score.

The fourteen points surrendered by the Patriots' defense lowered their league-leading points per game average to 15.6, assuring them that they will finish the season as the top scoring defense in the NFL - and they did it the way they've done it all season, shutting down the Dolphins' powerful rushing game and limiting big plays in the passing game - in essence forcing Miami to dink and dunk their way down the field, chewing clock the entire time.

Miami tried to counter the Patriots' game plan by going up-tempo, and it worked as they scored both of their touchdowns in the hurry up offense, but New England adjusted by going full shift-change in the waning moments to rotate in fresh personnel.

Now the Patriots wait, rest, heal and sharpen their technique and focus - watching to see who will be coming to Foxborough to challenge them in the Divisional round of the playoffs, with the lowest surviving seed between Houston, Oakland and Miami the candidates...

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