The Patriots may or may not have been going all out to beat the Dolphins on Sunday. We can debate whether they treated it like a preseason game in the first half, and used it as an opportunity to work on their run game and to keep key players out of harm’s way.
What’s interesting, upon rewatching the Patriots’ 20-10 loss, was that they almost pulled it off.
Had a few bad bounces or calls gone the Patriots’ way, they easily could have escaped Sun Life Stadium with a win and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
Remember, this was a 10-10 game with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. That’s when Ryan Tannehill closed his eyes, chucked a prayer down the right sideline, and DeVante Parker made a circus catch off a deflection from Logan Ryan to put the Dolphins at the 6-yard line and in position for the game-winning score.
Had Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 46-yard field goal near the end of the second quarter instead of pushing it wide right, the Patriots could have taken a 6-3 lead into halftime. Instead, Tannehill took over with good field position and led the Dolphins to a last-minute touchdown, a 10-3 lead, and a 10-point swing in the game.
Had Jamie Collins come down with an interception on the pass he batted up in the air around the Dolphins’ 20-yard line in the third quarter, it could have changed the complexion in the game.
And had the Patriots not lost 40 yards in field position on a punt in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 10, the Patriots could have been in position to drive for a go-ahead score. Instead of getting the football at their 43-yard line after a return by Danny Amendola, the Patriots were first penalized for running into the kicker, then Amendola made a fair catch on the re-punt at the 8, and a holding call on Dekoda Watson moved them back to the 4.
It’s always easy to play the “what-if” game. But even with Tom Brady throwing only five passes in the first half and playing with a sprained ankle, and Rob Gronkowski not making a catch until the fourth quarter, and all of those fluky plays going against the Patriots, they still almost pulled off the win.
Other observations after rewatching the game tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Rewatching the game, it became even more obvious that this wasn’t a typical game plan for the Patriots. Sure, the Dolphins used some nickel defense against the Patriots’ two-tight-end package, but if the Patriots are playing it straight and purely trying to win, the game plan is never to run the ball against eight or nine defenders in the box, as the Patriots did in the first quarter. The game plan is not to run the ball on third and 8 and use Gronkowski as a “wham” blocker. The game plan is never to give the first 19 targets/touches only to the running backs, and to not target Gronk until the third quarter. And the game plan certainly isn’t to have Brady throw five passes in the first half. The Dolphins showed several run-friendly defensive fronts in the second half, and Brady threw the ball anyway.
It was most likely what a Dolphins coach told me after the game — the Patriots wanted to shorten the game in the first half to avoid injury, then try to win it in the second half. And it’s not necessarily a terrible strategy. But perhaps the Patriots should have flipped the script — try to build a comfortable lead in the first half, and if not, just run out the game in the second half. Brady may have been able to avoid some of the big hits that way.
■ Along the same lines, the Patriots used Amendola on just 23 of 60 snaps, and if the team were healthier, I bet he would have sat this game out. And Gronkowski didn’t run the deep seam routes that make him susceptible to big hits around his knees. He ran routes safely down the sideline, out of harm’s way.
■ The final rushing numbers didn’t look great — the Patriots rushed for 70 yards on just 2.6 yards per carry — but Steven Jackson actually ran the ball pretty well. I counted 30 of his 35 yards coming after initial contact, and he churned out runs of 5, 5, 6, and 3 yards (for a first down with 10 defenders in the box) when the Dolphins were stacking the box and expecting run.
Brandon Bolden also created a few extra yards when the holes weren’t there, and had a nice 9-yard run against a loaded box. If the weather is frightful in Foxborough for the playoffs, the Patriots should be able to have a semblance of a power running game.
■ The offensive line, though, was awful across the board. LT Cameron Fleming, Gronk, and TE Mike Williams had an impossible time with Olivier Vernon, who had three quarterback hits, a half-sack, and two run stuffs, including one where he tossed Williams around like a rag doll (Williams has 30-40 pounds on Vernon) and stuffed Bolden in the backfield.
Gronk was inconsistent in the run game, creating a key block on Jackson’s touchdown run but also allowing three run stuffs.
Tre’ Jackson completely whiffed on a block against Jordan Phillips on the second play of the game.
James White was dropped for a 6-yard loss on a screen pass when David Andrews couldn’t get out in front of Kelvin Sheppard in time. Shaq Mason couldn’t get out in front of Derrick Shelby in time, and Shelby decked Brady. Shelby also overpowered Josh Kline on a bull rush and forced a fumble, while Fleming, White, Kline, and Marcus Cannon got overwhelmed on a six-man zone blitz and allowed four pass rushers to sandwich Brady.
■ The Dolphins also weren’t fooled by the Patriots’ play-action passes, or their deception plays. On third and 2 in the third quarter, the play was a designed play-action pass to Amendola coming across the formation, but the Dolphins knocked him off his path, forcing Brady to scramble and throw up a prayer to Keshawn Martin, which he caught for 30 yards.
Martin was called for offensive pass interference, but it was a total flop by Brent Grimes, who should win an Oscar for his performance.
When the Dolphins had the ball
■ While the Patriots did allow Miami to gain 438 yards and go 8 of 17 on third down, the run defense was excellent, even without Dont’a Hightower in the lineup. They held the Dolphins to 96 rushing yards on 2.8 yards per carry, and had 10 run stuffs on the Dolphins’ 34 carries. Collins had 3½ run stuffs, including a key one with Alan Branch on fourth down. Patrick Chung’s return to the lineup was welcomed, and he had two run stuffs. Jordan Richards and Rob Ninkovich each had a stuff, and Malcolm Butler and Ryan each made excellent open-field tackles in the run game as well.
■ And Akiem Hicks and Jabaal Sheard continued their excellent play of late. Hicks was dominant on Sunday, compiling three run stuffs, two pressures, and a tackle for loss, while Sheard had two pressures and two stuffs while playing more snaps in place of Chandler Jones. Geneo Grissom beat tackle Jason Fox with an inside move for his first NFL sack, but was mostly quiet on Sunday. The Patriots rarely blitzed the Dolphins, and the pass rush didn’t get home, giving Tannehill plenty of time to find his receivers. The Patriots definitely missed Jones in this game.
■ The Patriots didn’t really match up their cornerbacks with particular receivers, and played a lot of zone, and Tannehill seemed to target No. 3 cornerback Leonard Johnson. He completed 5 of 8 passes against Johnson for 64 yards, not including passes throw Johnson’s way in zone coverage, although Johnson held his own with a really nice pass defensed against Kenny Stills in the end zone. Johnson has had a great season, but he was the goat on Sunday, biting on a double-move on a 31-yard pass to Greg Jennings on the Dolphins’ touchdown drive right before halftime, and not knocking the ball away on Parker’s 46-yard circus catch in the fourth quarter.
Parker’s touchdown right before halftime came against a Cover-2 defense, and Tannehill just timed his pass perfectly to squeeze it in between the two levels of the defense.
■ The following players played a season high in snaps on Sunday: Sheard (71), Jerod Mayo (69), Malcom Brown (54), Hicks (49), and Branch (47).
■ The Patriots’ special teams didn’t commit a turnover like they had in each game over the last month, but it wasn’t the sharpest day by the third phase, either. The operation appeared to be smooth on Gostkowski’s missed 46-yarder, but he pushed the kick right. Bolden was lucky he wasn’t flagged 15 yards for roughing the kicker, as he connected with punter Matt Darr’s plant leg while Darr’s kicking leg was still in the air, the definition of the penalty. And the Patriots committed four penalties on special teams, all in the second half.