Coming into the game, the Patriots knew with a win they would be the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and get a first-round bye. With the knowledge in hand, the team played all of their starters (including Rob Gronkowski) and rolled to a 28-0 win. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, but considering the conditions (wind and cold) it was an impressive, much needed win. The Patriots will now be off next week and await their opponent in the divisional round.
Here are five observations from the regular season finale:
The Patriots got Rob Gronkowski back in Sunday’s 28-0 win over Miami. (FILE:USPresswire)
Although it wasn’t their best performance of the season, the offense did what it needed to do to get the job done and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. Tom Brady finished the day 22-36 for 284 yards and two touchdowns. As usual he spread the ball around to his receivers, hooking up with six different players. Leading the way was Wes Welker who caught eight passes for 94 yards and a touchdown. The offense also saw the return of Rob Gronkowski, who was definitely limited, virtually playing with just one arm. He was very hesitant to use his left arm, the arm in which he suffered a broken forearm six weeks ago. Gronkowski finished with two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots were very good on both third and fourth downs, going 8-16 on third downs and then 2-3 on fourth. The Patriots also dominated time of possession, controlling the ball 35:38-24:22. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called a very solid game, mixing the run and pass, keeping the Dolphins defense off balance all game long. It certainly wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was very efficient and a good way to go into the playoffs.
Defense dials up the pressure again
Going into the playoffs the defense needed a solid performance to build off of, and that is just what they got Sunday as they shut out the Dolphins. One of the major keys to their success was generating pressure on Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. This has been a point of emphasis all season long, which has improved on a week to week basis as the season has gone on. You could tell once Aqib Talib was brought in, the entire scope of the defense philosophy changed, as they played much more free and lose — blitzing much more than they did in the first half of the season. Sunday the Patriots recorded a season-high seven sacks. Justin Francis led the way with three, while Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, Trevor Scott and Derrick Martin all added one apiece. The unit also hit Tannehil eight times, forcing him into numerous bad throws, including an interception. One of the major keys to the Patriots success in the playoffs will be how much they can get after opposing quarterbacks, because when you get into the playoffs, quarterbacks rarely make mistakes on their own — sometimes you need to force them yourself.
Offensive line protects Brady
All season long the offensive line has been a major storyline in each game and Sunday was no different. The line had another very strong game, protecting Brady giving him a lot of time in the pocket. Brady was sacked just once and hit only twice, which was key on such a cold and windy day. The guys getting it done in the trenches were: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer. The group also did a superb job in creating holes for the Patriot running backs to run through. The Patriots ran for a total of 167 yards on 38 carries. Stevan Ridley led the way with 20 carries for 74 yards and two touchdowns. Danny Woodhead had a phenomenal game out of the backfield, especially catching passes, as he recorded five receptions for 79 yards. The offensive line will need to continue to play well, and will play a major role in the success of the offense as the team heads into the playoffs.
Patriots still wounded
The bye could not have been any more important for the Patriots as they are still battling a number of injuries and will need the extra week to get healthy. Gronkowski wasn’t any where near 100 percent as he returned from a broken left forearm. Getting two weeks off will be big in getting him closer to 100 percent for the playoffs. Also on offense Mankins, Welker, Aaron Hernandez, among others are banged up with various aliments and the extra week off will help. Defensively, Alfonso Dennard was inactive for Sunday’s game, while Talib was active but didn’t play. Brandon Spikes did not see much playing time, if at all, as he is battling a few injuries himself. The bye week will be welcomed by the defense, especially in the secondary as they need everyone healthy to be at their best. They are at their best with Talib and Dennard at corner and Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety. They need all their players healthy in order to be able to play that way. While getting to play one less game because of the bye, the more significant thing is the extra week allows the injured to get back closer to 100 percent.
It has been announced that the Patriots’ first playoff game will be Sunday, January 13 at 4:30 p.m. at Gillette Stadium. Their opponent will be Houston, if they are able to defeat the Bengals. If Cincinnati wins, then they would play the winner of the Baltimore-Indianapolis game. If I were the Patriots, I would want Houston to win and have the Texans come back to Foxboro. They are limping into the playoffs, and I think New England would have an easier time with them compared to Baltimore or Indianapolis. No matter what the case, it is sure to be an exciting month of playoff football — buckle up.
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