The Patriots have won four straight division titles, and are on the verge of a fifth, not because of a dominant defense, or superior skill-position players, or better college scouting than their AFC East rivals.
It’s because of two reasons — they have a better coach, and a better quarterback, than everyone else.
The Dolphins made a statement in their 24-20 victory over the Patriots Sunday: “We’re coming for you.”
Now, we’d be foolish to say Joe Philbin is on par with Bill Belichick, or Ryan Tannehill is morphing into the next Tom Brady. But the pair, both in their second seasons with the Dolphins, stood toe to toe with the Patriots twice this season. They jumped to a 17-3 lead against the Patriots in Foxborough in Week 8 before wilting in the second half, and finally defeated the Patriots Sunday for the first time in four tries (and the first for Miami’s franchise since 2009).
It was the Dolphins who were more athletic on both sides of the football — Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Rishard Matthews carving up the Patriots’ secondary, and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe flying around the field, shutting down Shane Vereen. It was the Dolphins who disguised their blitzes, confused the Patriots’ offensive line, and frustrated Brady in the pocket.
And it was Tannehill completing 67 percent of his passes, and making big throw after big throw in crucial moments, like the 24-yarder to Matthews in the final minutes and the game-winning touchdown pass to Marcus Thigpen, displaying perfect touch and accuracy despite having a defender in his face.
Don’t argue the Patriots are a depleted team now, because so are the Dolphins. Their offensive line has been patched together ever since Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin disappeared. And their secondary played the final series without their top three cornerbacks — Brady was throwing against a rookie third-rounder (Will Davis), a safety who hadn’t played cornerback in three years (Jimmy Wilson), and a safety who was plucked off the 49ers’ practice squad last week (Michael Thomas).
The Patriots are still the class of the division and will likely be the champions again. But the Dolphins proved Sunday they’re closing the gap.
A review of the game after watching the coaches’ tape:
When the Patriots had the ball . . .
■ The Dolphins did a nice job of disguising their defense by bringing defenders up to the line of scrimmage — particularly linebackers Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler. Sometimes the Dolphins would send a heavy blitz, and sometimes they would drop back into coverage, making it hard for Brady to check in and out of the right plays. Brady was sacked only once, but he was officially hit seven times, and was forced to throw the ball away when his receivers weren’t open as he anticipated. And on several occasions, the Dolphins’ alignment caused confusion in the Patriots’ protection, allowing a Dolphins defender to come screaming at Brady untouched, like Derrick Shelby did in the fourth quarter on a crucial third-down play. Brady did throw for 364 yards, but he needed 55 attempts to do it.
■ Michael Hoomanawanui made all the highlight shows for his awesome one-handed touchdown catch, but Brady deserves a lot of credit for side-stepping Cameron Wake (who came in untouched), stepping up in the pocket and putting the perfect amount of touch on a pass that traveled about 25 yards in the air. Wheeler held Hoomanawanui the entire way down the field, but no penalty was called. That would be a recurring theme — Ellerbe clearly had his arm wrapped around the “Hooman’’ late in the fourth quarter and prevented him from going up for the catch, but pass interference was not called. It was eerily similar to the final play in the Patriots’ loss to the Panthers.
■ Vereen only caught three passes, and two of them came on back-to-back plays at the end of the first quarter. Ellerbe, who normally would’ve been covering Rob Gronkowski, showed impressive speed in keeping up with Vereen throughout the entire game. Vereen also drew occasional double teams, which opened up the field for his teammates, like on a 30-yard catch-and-run by Danny Amendola in the second quarter. There was one play in the first quarter in which Vereen was wide open on a swing pass, but Brady didn’t look his way.
■ Center Ryan Wendell has been up and down this season, but he had a really nice game in the run game, paving the way for Stevan Ridley by clearing behemoth defensive tackle Paul Soliai out of the way several times. Amendola once again had a nice day blocking on a few slip screens to Julian Edelman. And LeGarrette Blount continues to run hard, breaking at least five tackles and having runs of 6, 8 and 6 yards after contact.
■ One player starting to come out of his shell is rookie receiver Josh Boyce, who barely played through the first three quarters of the season but had four catches for 42 yards Sunday when pressed into duty because of injuries. He completely fooled Brent Grimes on a stop-and-go in the third quarter, resulting in a 30-yard catch.
■ Funny dynamic in the fourth quarter with the Patriots trailing, 17-13. Edelman dropped a crossing pass, and barked at umpire Fred Bryan all the way back to the huddle for getting in the way. On the next play, Edelman again ran a crossing route, Bryan ducked out of the way, and Edelman caught it and ran into the end zone.
■ Brady went right after Thomas, the practice squad call-up, on the Patriots’ final drive. Of his 12 passes (not including a spike), Brady targeted Thomas on the first, second, third, fifth, eighth, and 10th plays. On the 12th, Thomas was lined up over Amendola, but passed him off to safety Chris Clemons and dropped back to Austin Collie and made the game-clinching interception.
When the Dolphins had the ball . . .
■ The Patriots brought the cornerback blitz back into their repertoire. We counted two of them for Aqib Talib, one for Kyle Arrington (which resulted in his first NFL sack), and one for Alfonzo Dennard that forced a quick three and out in midway through the fourth quarter. Dennard tipped Tannehill’s pass at the line of scrimmage, but if he hadn’t, Dane Fletcher possibly could have intercepted the ball.
■ Speaking of Dennard, his tackling was brutal. He was one of the key misses on Charles Clay’s fourth-and-5 conversion, and he whiffed on a Mike Wallace end-around and several times on Hartline. He also was in coverage on Matthews’s crucial 24-yard catch into the red zone in the final minutes. Devin McCourty had the tackle of the day, though, picking Daniel Thomas up and slamming him to the turf in the second.
■ Bryant McKinnie said Sunday he had to tell new left guard Sam Brenner to stop “jump-setting” off the line of scrimmage, as it would put the two blockers on different levels and create a gap in the offensive line. Sure enough, we saw several occasions in which Chandler Jones would come screaming in off the edge and slam into Brenner from the side, allowing the defensive tackle to run free to the outside. Sealver Siliga’s sack late in the fourth quarter came using this tactic.
■ Phil Simms mentioned it on the broadcast, and it was obvious that the Patriots were determined not to let Lamar Miller beat them to the outside with his speed. Jones and Rob Ninkovich lined up well outside the tackles, practically begging the Dolphins to run up the middle, where Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Spikes, and Jamie Collins cleaned up the mess. Of the 20 runs by Miller and Daniel Thomas, 17 went between the tackles. Overall they averaged 3.85 yards per carry.
■ The Patriots put Talib, Collins and McCourty on Clay all game and played two-deep safety most of the day. Clay, who had 89 yards and two touchdowns the previous week, had just two passes thrown his way Sunday, and caught one for 6 yards (though it was a big one).
Special teams . . .
■ The Dolphins were clearly running a fake field goal on the botched snap that went off Brandon Fields’s facemask. Shelby, lined up on the far left end of the formation, broke downfield as soon as the ball was snapped, either as a lead blocker or as an eligible receiver. The Dolphins were aggressive on special teams, also sending a punt block after Ryan Allen in the first quarter.
■ Despite the blooper, Fields had an awesome game Sunday, with a net average of 47.3 yards. He clearly remembered Edelman’s 94-yard punt return touchdown in 2011 — three of his punts went out of bounds, and the fourth was a fair catch.
■ Stephen Gostkowski’s missed 48-yard field goal was a killer, as it would have put the Patriots up, 13-7, in the third quarter. Instead, the Dolphins got the ball at their 38 and went on to tie the game on the ensuing drive.
■ WR Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman: Combined for 23 catches for 270 yards and a touchdown.
■ DE Chandler Jones: Only had three tackles, but also had a sack, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, and consistently disrupted the Dolphins’ offensive line.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin