FOXBOROUGH — Almost two months to the day since suffering a hip injury that caused him to miss six games, defensive end Chandler Jones was back on the field for the Patriots on Sunday. It looked as if he never left.
Jones played a typical game. He forced a fumble, had 1½ sacks of Ryan Tannehill, and was credited with seven tackles after playing 52 defensive snaps in the Patriots’ 41-13 win over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium, which brought New England its sixth consecutive AFC East title.
He celebrated with his teammates after the game, but before the game, Jones acknowledged a much different feeling.
“Just a few months ago I was on crutches. For me to be out there with my team, I got a little emotional,” Jones said. “Just getting ready, as I’m putting my pads on, getting my wrists taped and getting my ankles taped, going through that whole routine, the process of a pregame again. I felt a little emotional, thinking, ‘This is happening. I’m back out here.’ You’ve just got to enjoy it.”
Jones didn’t look limited physically, and wasted no time getting on the field. He was sent out on the second play of the game, and consistently showed the strength and quickness for which he’s known. The biggest difference was where Jones lined up. He took plenty of snaps at his natural right defensive end position, but also played inside for a number of snaps next to Akeem Ayers, who joined the Patriots through a trade after Jones was injured in the Jets game Oct. 16.
It was Ayers’s first game experience with Jones.
“We rotated a couple of series at defensive end, and having a tackle going against both of us, it’s a challenge,’’ said Ayers, who had one tackle for a loss. “One series he’s going against Chandler, then one series he’s going against me, and then when we’re both in there together, we can do all types of stunts and cause a lot of confusion. It’s going to be real good for us, especially after a couple of games, and we find out what works for us and what doesn’t.”
Jones had his first sack against Tannehill in the fourth quarter, on a blindside hit that popped the ball loose.
The fumble was recovered by Dolphins tackle Ja’Wuan James. Jones then shared a sack with Dont’a Hightower on Miami’s final offensive play of the game.
“It felt good, first sack back. I was wishing we could have recovered it, but it felt real good to help the team,” Jones said. “When you’re on the field, when you’re in between those lines, there’s no 70 or 80 percent. You have to go 110 every time. I felt like if I didn’t have the ability to go 110 percent, I shouldn’t be out there. I was going 110 percent every play.”
On receiving end
On his first reception of the game — a 34-yarder on the first play of the third quarter — Rob Gronkowski surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the season, the second time he’s reached the mark in his five-year career.
Gronkowski finished with 96 yards on three catches, including a 27-yard touchdown later in the third quarter. He’s the first Patriots tight end with two 1,000-yard seasons, and the ninth tight end in NFL history to do it.
“Got to start off with just one play, just one play to get the drive going and get the first down, start clicking from there,” Gronkowski said. “It just takes one play at a time.”
Gronkowski had 1,327 receiving yards in 2011, which remains the NFL season record for a tight end. With 1,093 yards, Gronkowski needs 235 in his final two games to break his own record. The touchdown was his 11th of the season.
With Jones and Hightower back in uniform, the Patriots had to add six players to the inactive list, since defensive lineman Dominique Easley was ruled out on Friday. By ruling Zach Moore out, the Patriots were left with just seven available defensive linemen, including Ayers, who is listed as a linebacker.
Offensive linemen Cameron Fleming and Jordan Devey have been near-weekly members of the inactive group, with Fleming missing his fourth straight game (and ninth in the past 10), and Devey his seventh straight game. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard sat out his second consecutive game, linebacker Chris White his third straight, and rookie running back James White his sixth straight. Chris White has been dealing with an ankle injury.
A pair of sevens
The Patriots started the same offensive line for the seventh straight game: Nate Solder at left tackle, Dan Connolly at left guard, rookie Bryan Stork at center, Ryan Wendell at right guard, and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. In the season opener against the Dolphins — when the game-time temperature was 89 degrees — the Patriots used seven linemen.
In the rematch, the Patriots again used seven offensive linemen. In addition to the starters, Marcus Cannon came on multiple times at left tackle when Solder was an eligible-receiving tight end. Josh Kline came in when Connolly left the game with a neck injury.
Connolly wasn’t the only one to leave with an injury. Cornerback Kyle Arrington, who scored the game’s first touchdown after Jamie Collins blocked a Miami field goal attempt, suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter. He also did not return to the game.
Back in Gray area
It appears that running back Jonas Gray is back in good graces. He played more snaps, received more carries, and rushed for more yards than he had since his 37-carry, 201-yard, four-touchdown game against the Colts on Nov. 16.
Gray was late for a practice the following week, and the consequences for that mistake were evident: He didn’t play in the next game against Detroit, had a single carry against the Packers (for 4 yards), and had two carries at San Diego (for 9 yards).
Against the Dolphins, Gray had team-high totals of 11 rushes for 62 yards.
The 24 points were the most ever scored by the Patriots in a third quarter. The previous high was 22, set against the Dallas Texans on Nov. 18, 1960, the Patriots’ inaugural season . . . With his 229th victory as a head coach (playoffs included), Bill Belichick tied Curly Lambeau for fourth place on the all-time NFL list. Belichick is 229-117-0; Lambeau was 229-134-22. The top three winningest coaches in league history are Don Shula (347-173-6), George Halas (324-151-31), and Tom Landry (270-178-6) . . . Cornerback Brandon Browner had two more penalties, bringing his total to 13 in the eight games he’s played. Browner was flagged twice on Sunday for pass interference: A 6-yarder while covering Brian Hartline, and a 25-yarder against Jarvis Landry. Both penalties came in the second quarter. He also had an unnecessary roughness penalty in the fourth quarter that was offset when Dolphins receiver Brandon Gibson got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting . . . Miami converted just 3 of 16 third downs. From a percentage standpoint, the Dolphins’ 19.6 success rate was the second-best for the Patriots’ defense; the Bengals were 0 for 7 in the Oct. 6 game . . . Asked about the Jonathan Fanene-Dr. Thomas Gill story that appeared in the Washington Post last week, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft told WBZ-FM (98.5), “That was a grievance that was brought long ago, and was resolved without any finding of anything related to the club or Dr. Gill. There’s not a lot to talk about there. I’ll leave it at that.” The Post report cited a complaint filed by the NFL Players Association, which accused Gill of siding with the Patriots and delaying surgery in an attempt to get signing bonus money back from Fanene. He never played a game for the Patriots before being released prior to the 2012 season. The sides reached a settlement . . . Former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was on the sidelines before the game, chatting with owner Robert Kraft, some of his ex-teammates, and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. Then he was in the postgame locker room, speaking with Tom Brady for quite some time . . . Ernie Tomascik of Fairhaven won a $1 million prize at halftime during a promotion from the Massachusetts Lottery.