While the Patriots clinched the AFC East division title with their 23-16 win over the Dolphins, it certainly wasn’t the performance the team wanted, but it was enough to get the job done. The Patriots left some points on the board and had some uncharacteristic breakdowns leaving the players not completely satisfied. New England now has two of the biggest games of the season the next two weeks with Houston visiting Foxboro next Monday night, followed by the 49ers the next Sunday night.

Here are five observations from Sunday’s win:

Steven Ridley led the Patriots to their best drive of the season clinching the win.(FILE:USPresswire)

A game-clinching drive

With the Patriots leading 20-13 and receiving the ball with 8:28 remaining in the game, in the past has been a drive where the Patriots have struggled, giving the ball up fairly quickly allowing their opponent to stay in the game. Sunday this wasn’t the case as the Patriots delivered possibly their drive of the season, going 77 yards, but more importantly taking 7:18 off the clock resulting in a field goal making it a two possession game, thus clinching the win. The drive was dominated by the running game, which was virtually ineffective earlier in the game, but Josh McDaniels stayed with it getting the job done against a very tired Miami defense. Stevan Ridley led the team on the drive rushing for 46 of his 71 yards, while Shane Vereen added eight of his 14 yards. Tom Brady only needed to throw for 24 yards on the drive, which sealed the win. The Patriots have been put in this situation many times this season and haven’t been able to get the job done. This drive gives the team something to build on for the rest of the season especially with the next two games looming so large.

Brady roughed up

Going into the game Brady hadn’t been sacked in the last month, but the quarterback was roughed up in Sunday’s win. Brady was sacked four times and hit seven — things he hasn’t had to deal with of late. The Patriots were going against a very good front-seven of Miami and making matters worse was a depleted offensive line left the job of stopping them. Once again Logan Mankins was kept out, and the team lost Dan Connolly early in the first quarter to a back injury. That left (left tackle-right tackle) Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Vollmer the task of protecting Brady and leading the way for the running backs. The unit did not perform as well as they have in recent weeks, which certainly effected both Brady and the running game.

Brady didn’t appear comfortable in the pocket all game long, thus having one of his worst games of the season. He finished 24-40 for 238 yards and one touchdown as well as an interception. As previously mentioned, the running game was nonexistent until the final drive. Prior to the drive the team had only totaled 56 yards on the ground. The Patriots finished with 108 yards rushing on 32 carries, which equates to 3.4 yards per carry. The offensive line will be important for the team down the stretch, as they need to be able to protect Brady as well as open holes for the running game. They will certainly be tested the next two weeks going against very tough defenses in the Texans and 49ers.

Defensive making strides

The defensive quietly has been getting better and better each week, especially in the secondary. Some of this improvement comes from the overall defense playing more “loose” and blitzing more. Once again Bill Belichick devoted much of his time on the sidelines with the defense, sometimes paying no attention to the offense and speaking with the defense. His adjustments worked, especially dialing up more pressure. The same thing occurred two weeks ago against the Colts as following working with the defense on the sidelines the Patriots started blitzing more. Sunday it was Kyle Arrington and Steve Gregory from the secondary as well as Jerod Mayo on a delayed blitz up the middle which stood out. This is something many wish the Patriots would do more of. as whenever they have it has been very effective, producing good results, rattling opposing quarterbacks.

One of the major emphasis of Belichick’s defenses is having everything kept in front. The Patriots did a good job not giving up any plays over 30 yards which has been something the unit has struggled with this season. One position which was a question entering the game was defensive end with Chandler Jones out with an ankle injury and Jermaine Cunningham suspended. Trevor Scott filled in nicely recording three tackles and two sacks. Also, something to also be noted is Brandon Spikes’ play in pass coverage, which has improved dramatically as the season has gone on. He is third on the team in passes deflected and first among non-members of the secondary. Everyone knows how well the offensive can be, the key to how far the Patriots go this season is the defense.

Play calling a bit suspect

As as been the case a few times before this season, McDaniels’ play calling was a bit suspect on Sunday, particularly in the second half, possibly costing the Patriots a few points. Leading by seven points at the half, the Patriots got the ball to start the second half and had a chance to set the tone for the second half, but did not come up with anything as they went three and out. An in-completion followed by a seven-yard run by Ridley set up third and three. After struggling with the run in the first half, McDaniels called a running play to the outside and Ridley was stopped short of the first down. Why run the ball when you struggled so much in the first half and have Brady as your quarterback?

Another questionable call occurred early in the fourth quarter when Aaron Hernandez’ catch and run for 31 yards got the ball down to the Miami two yard line. The Patriots still led 17-10 at the time and had the chance to make it a two possession game, but McDaniels called three straight passes. The first, a sack of Brady, the second a drop by Welker in the end zone and the third another sack resulting in a field goal. Why not run the ball on 1st and goal from the two? Even if it gets stopped, its still at worse second and goal from the two. McDaniels calling a pass on 1st and goal from the two really messed that whole sequence up resulting in three points instead of seven. While critiquing two plays seems like nitpicking, the playoffs are closing in and we all know one play in the playoffs can be the different between winning and losing.

Gronk’s absence showing

Nobody noticed the absence of Rob Gronkowski in the victory over the Jets, but Sunday it certainly was there. Gronkowski is one of the best run blocking tight ends in the league and clearly the team needed him Sunday with the state the offensive line was in. The red zone is also an area where Gronkowski excels in and was Brady’s favorite target. Gronkowski has eight touchdowns in the red zone on 18 targets, which is by far the most targets of any other Patriot. New England scored touchdowns on just two of their four trips to the red zone on Sunday, clearly missing Gronkowski. Hernandez has picked up some of the slack, but he just isn’t Gronkowski. Hernandez is a very different player, a much more shifty, non physical player. He also doesn’t have the same set of hands Gronkowski has, which was shown Sunday as he had two drops early in the game.

One player picking up the slack was Welker who caught 12 passes on 18 targets for 103 yards and a touchdown against his former team. Brandon Lloyd was essentially a no show Sunday recording only one catch very late in the fourth quarter, it was his only target of the day. Julien Edelman left the game with an ankle injury was was reportedly seen in the locker room on crutches and a walking boot after the game. The Patriots are now very limited with their receiving corps. Besides Lloyd and Welker, the Patriots now have special teams captain Matthew Slater as their third receiver (with Edelman out). There has been no word on Deion Branch’s injured hamstring, but if he isn’t healthy and resigned one would expect the team to be working some wide receivers out this week with two of the biggest games of the year upcoming.

For non-stop Patriots coverage follow me on Twitter @hannable84.

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