FOXBOROUGH — After each offensive play in Sunday’s 28-0 thrashing of the Dolphins, Tom Brady tucked his mitts into the hand warmer attached to the front of his uniform. Because of the work of his offensive line, Brady didn’t have to place his hands on any aching body parts.
There weren’t any.
The Dolphins sacked Brady four times and hit him eight times in the previous meeting, Dec. 2 in Miami.
In Sunday’s rematch, Brady was sacked just once. On a cornerback blitz in the third quarter, Bryan McCann sprinted past tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to drive Brady into the ground. It was one of only two times the Dolphins got their paws on Brady.
“Any time you play a team for the second time, you have an opportunity to try to improve on some things that you saw in the first game,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday. “We just played Miami a month ago, and we talked about being able to run the football a little bit more consistently, trying to protect the quarterback, and clean the pocket out a little bit more than we had in the first game. We really made a strong point of emphasis on converting in our short-yardage and goal-line situations, as well. I really thought the line did a nice job [Sunday] of establishing a physical presence on the line of scrimmage and really allowing us to run the football, throw it from the pocket, maintain our balance throughout the game. Then really helped us convert in those two short-yardage opportunities.”
Sunday’s performance by the offensive line wasn’t just an improvement over the Dec. 2 win over the Dolphins. It also marked a significant progression from the 23-16 victory over Jacksonville Dec. 23. The Jaguars recorded three sacks on Brady and dropped the quarterback nine times.
In Sunday’s regular-season finale, Brady found his rhythm early because his big boys allowed him the time and space to read the defense.
“It’s not for me to make evaluations of the O-line’s performance,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “I did some good things. I did some bad things. I know I need to work on a lot of things.”
Rob Gronkowski had missed five games because of a broken left forearm. So, both Gronkowski and the coaching staff knew the tight end would be limited against the Dolphins.
Despite his shorter body of work (22 snaps), Gronkowski gave the Patriots the presence they required. He caught a 23-yard touchdown pass, one of his two receptions.
“We knew what his role in the game was going to be. It wasn’t going to be as extensive as maybe some other games,” McDaniels said. “So, he did his job that we asked him to do and carried out his assignment. I thought all in all, it was a fairly productive day. Also an opportunity for him to get out there, get his legs back, get into the game, and hear the communication, tempo, pace, and all the different things that happen when you haven’t played in a over a month. Hopefully, we’ll be able to build off that this week and next week.”
Jermaine Cunningham returned on Sunday after a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He recorded his only tackle in the first quarter, dragging down Ryan Tannehill after the Dolphins quarterback scrambled for 8 yards.
“It’s like any player that has a little time off or is away from the game for a while,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “You just have to keep working to improve and hopefully build on that performance the following week or whenever it is that you play. He’s going to have to come back in and keep working hard to get himself going again. But it was a good job by him of being ready to go when he got back in the building.”
After Tuesday’s day off, the Patriots will practice Wednesday and Thursday. They will be excused from Friday through Sunday. “Probably not,” Stevan Ridley said when asked if he’ll watch this weekend’s playoff games. “I’ll be hunting. I’m going down south.” . . . The bye week could allow Marquice Cole to heal. The cornerback didn’t play against Miami, and was spotted on Monday wearing a splint on his injured left pinkie. Cole was injured against Jacksonville . . . With no opponent next weekend, the Patriots will go through self-evaluation this week. The coaching staff reviewed the Miami tape on Monday and planned to look at potential opponents. “We’re trying to play perfect football,” Ridley said. “That’s impossible, of course. But when you make a mistake, you’d best believe this is the one place it’s not going to slide. [Bill Belichick] is going to critique it and try to correct it. Then move forward.” . . . Donte’ Stallworth, sidelined with a sprained right ankle, is out of his boot. Stallworth will not require surgery and is starting his rehab. He was placed on injured reserve Dec. 11 . . . Julian Edelman, also on IR, walked through the locker room with a boot on his right foot.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.