FOXBOROUGH — Chest-pounding challenges of manhood, macho motivational speeches, and red-faced exhortations are not going to beat Bill Belichick’s implacable Patriots. That’s old-school football thinking that leads to an old-fashioned you-know-what whupping.
The resurgent Miami Dolphins learned the hard way Thursday night you can’t defeat the Patriots relying on raw emotion and a rudimentary passing attack.
The Patriots exposed a Miami Mirage on national television with a 36-7 victory at Gillette Stadium and continued their inexorable march to 16-0. Don Shula and the 1972 undefeated Dolphins better break out their Belichick voodoo dolls and grab a Snickers. They’re going to be here awhile waiting to pop some champagne at the Patriots’ expense.
Their Dolphin descendants were the Patriots’ seventh victim of the season and easy prey. Miami was coming off a pair of blowout wins over the Titans and Texans in which they scored 38 and 44 points, respectively. But they went from elementary school to PhD-level football.
Go with the Bro Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell was overmatched in his match of wits with Belichick. So was his quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, who was deprived of the quick reads and easy throws he completed last Sunday in a 44-26 victory over Houston on his way to a perfect passer rating and an NFL-record 25 straight completions, stretching over two games. Tannehill looked like a fish out of water in the first half, as the Patriots forced him to process and be precise.
The Dolphins had 76 total yards in the first half. It was like the Patriots were solving Algebra equations and the Dolphins were still learning their arithmetic tables. Miami and their machismo coach were down, 19-0, at the half. The rest was elementary, as the Patriots smothered a Miami attack that had averaged 468.5 yards in two games under Campbell, holding Miami to 270 yards.
What did you expect? Pro football’s Bobby Fischer was presiding over his 358th NFL game as a head coach. Campbell was participating in his third.
It should have been foreboding for the South Floridians when Belichick said during the week that the Dolphins had simplified things since Campbell replaced phlegmatic Fins coach Joe Philbin after four games.
That wasn’t a compliment. It was a warning label that the Dolphins were too prosaic to threaten the Patriots.
Miami’s inability to crack the Belichick code on offense rendered the rest of the game moot. You’re not going to beat the Patriots if you can’t crack double digits.
“They’re a great defense,” said Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry. “They’ve got a lot of Pro Bowl-caliber players over there. But at the same time we’ve just got to find ways to just attack those guys.”
He could have said better ways.
The sign that the Patriots could recite Miami’s offense came on the Dolphins’ first possession when they tried to run a throwback screen on third and 8 from their 48. Tannehill had to eat the ball for a Chandler Jones sack. The Patriots were all over the play.
“A lot of that credit goes to the coaches, honestly,” said Jones, who added two sacks to his NFL-leading total. “We had a short week. We only had a few days of practice. Guys just went out there and executed and just bought into what the coaches were saying.”
Simple won’t beat the Patriots. But that’s Miami’s offense. It has a lot of presnap motion and shifting to try to disguise formations and dress up college concepts. The Dolphins utilize misdirection and motion during plays to try to slow down the defense or fool them. All of it is designed to add depth to an offense full of short, quick throws and running plays.
The Patriots’ defense saw right through Miami’s smoke and mirrors. They took away dynamic Dolphins running back Lamar Miller (nine carries for 15 yards). Miami didn’t cross midfield until its final offensive play of the first half.
At halftime of the Texans game, Tannehill was 12 of 12 for 231 yards and four touchdowns. He finished 18 of 19 for 282 yards and four scores. At halftime Thursday, he was 9 of 15 for 81 yards with an interception and a safety.
Against Houston, Miami built a 41-0 lead in the second quarter without Tannehill throwing a ball longer than 13 yards in the air. Miami used screen passes, flare passes, and short passes to get its players in space and let them run wild. One of Tannehill’s record number of consecutive “completions” was a shovel pass.
“We knew that they have a very good quick inside passing game, so we knew we had to do things just to try to take things away and make them try to throw it downfield,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon.
When forced to throw like an actual NFL franchise quarterback, not one playing for Baylor or Oregon, Tannehill got exposed. He was 28 of 44 for the most deceiving 300 yards in NFL history and two interceptions. He was sacked five times.
The Patriots didn’t need Tom Brady to be great on this night, but he was — 26 of 38 for 356 yards and four touchdowns.
Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for a 47-yard touchdown pass on New England’s first drive. A not-ready-for prime-time Tannehill then handed the Patriots their next five points.
The Patriots got a safety when a shotgun snap from his own 10 whizzed by Tannehill with 14:05 left in the second quarter. Tannehill then threw an egregious interception to Logan Ryan on a play in which he had tight end Jordan Cameron open crossing the field.
Miami made it 19-7 on the first drive of the second half — some life for the boys from Sun Life Stadium.
They trailed, 22-7, when Tannehill threw the game away. Harmon’s diving interception and 30-yard return to the Miami 15 set up Brady’s third TD toss with 13:29 left.
The Patriots had sent the Dolphins back to the drawing board.