Thirty-five takeaways from the Patriots’ 35-14 victory over the Dolphins on Sunday.
1. Now that’s what you call an emphatic statement, even by the standards of a football team that has a knack for such things. A year after a cutesy game plan led to a Week 16 loss to the Dolphins, the loss of the No. 1 seed, and eventually, an ill-fated trip to Denver for the AFC Championship, the Patriots left no room for second-guessing or potential laments Sunday.
2. Tom Brady — who threw just twice on the first 19 plays last year — chucked two touchdown passes before the first quarter was complete, the Patriots had built a 14-0 lead, and they were off and running en route to a 35-14 victory that clinched the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. That is how you control your own situation.
3. Specific thoughts on the game will be coming in a moment. But first, it’s worth acknowledging what the Patriots have accomplished so far, with the regular season complete. This is their first 14-win season since 2010. It’s just the fourth time in their history (2003, ’04, ’07, ’10) that they’ve won 14 or more games in a season. It’s their eighth straight AFC East title. They went 8-0 on the road, an indicator of their mental toughness.
4. And not to get too far ahead of ourselves — we’re onto the bye week, right? — they will advance to the AFC title game for the sixth straight season if they can win one playoff game. If you were a Patriots fan in the early ‘90s, a season like this one — even with the outcome still to be determined — might have seemed unfathomable. Now, the brilliance is standard, and always worth saluting.
5. This was one of the finest seasons of Brady’s extraordinary career. He finished with 28 touchdown passes and just 2 interceptions, breaking the record for TD/INT ratio set by fellow legend Nick Foles (27-2) with the 2013 Eagles. That seems like the kind of record Brady should own, doesn’t it?
6. Brady finished 25 of 33 for 276 yards and three touchdowns. LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis combined for 99 rushing yards on 25 carries. Julian Edelman had 8 catches for 151 yards and a crucial touchdown and five other receivers caught at least two passes. In other words, it was business as usual for the Patriots’ offense, which may be the most versatile attack they’ve brought into the postseason since 2004.
7. As for the actual game … it wasn’t without suspense, even after the Patriots’ fast start. The Dolphins scored 14 unanswered points in the second and third quarters to cut the visitors’ lead to 20-14. It started feeling a bit like the Patriots’ 31-24 victory in Week 2, when they had to hold on to win after building 24-0 and 31-3 leads.
8. When the Patriots claimed Michael Floyd on waivers from the Cardinals Dec. 15, we wondered (among other things) when and if he would be ready to contribute. The answer came Sunday: He can help right now, and in a couple of major ways.
9. Floyd scored the Patriots’ second touchdown in the first quarter, taking hits from at least five Dolphins defenders and wriggling over the goal line. I can’t recall a Patriots receiver scoring a touchdown after so much contact in a condensed area, though I assume Julian Edelman has done it and it just escapes my mind right now.
10. In the third quarter, Floyd might have contributed a bigger play, even though he wasn’t the one who ended up with the touchdown. With the Patriots lead having been trimmed to 20-14, he sprung Edelman on a 77-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown with an explosive shoulder-first block on Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett at midfield. Talk about doing what it takes to find your way into the coaches’ good graces.
11. Heard the words “Brady,’’ “turf” and “knee brace” way too often on the Patriots’ first possession, especially after his 6-yard run that had every Pats fan holding his/her breath.
12. Of course, plays like that — picking up 6 yards on third and 5 — are the subtle, essential winning things Brady does at least as often as all of the obvious, essentially, winning things. We know this. But the reminders never get old.
13. Brady is the Most Valuable Player in the NFL this season no matter whether he or someone in Dallas or Atlanta actually collects the accolade. I suspect Brady will finish third, behind Matt Ryan and Ezekiel Elliott. Not bad for a guy who played 75 percent of the games.
14. The run turned out to be a pivotal play on a tone-setting 13-play, 75-yard drive that chewed up the first 7 minutes and 30 seconds of the game. It culminated with a Brady-to-Martellus Bennett 11-yard touchdown pass. It also sent a message: this is going to be different than last year.
15. While there was important stuff at stake, the number one wish was to get through the game healthy. The lousy condition of the turf at the appropriately named Hard Rock field only emphasized this. Certainly looks like the Patriots escaped intact. And there were no unexpected Bernard Pollard sightings.
16. Cameron Wake buried Brady a split-second after he handed off to Julian Edelman on a reverse on the first possession. It was a smart, tough play — the opposite of what the Jets defense did a month ago.
17. Remember that? When three or four of their defenders let Brady go untouched while he was tenuously attempting to block for LeGarrette Blount on a reverse-field run. I suspect the Jets’ approach is the unanimous preference around here.
18. What’s with all of those obscure defensive backs yapping and essentially slapping a bull’s eye on their own jersey in recent weeks? It was the Jets’ Juston Burris in last week’s Patriots rout. Early Sunday, it was the Dolphins’ Bobby McCain who was altogether too eager to celebrate any small achievement.
19. Probably not wise to get on Brady’s bad side, kid. He’s going to dissect you either way, but he has a knack for making it more painful for anyone who dares antagonize him or his receivers. Wouldn’t you know it, the message was delivered when Brady hit Edelman for a 2-point conversion and a 35-14 lead with 5:33 remaining.
20. McCain did bait Edelman into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Patriots’ third possession when the receiver jawed back and conked him with his helmet. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal on the drive and a 17-0 lead. It was the closest thing to a victory McCain and the Dolphins would have on the day.
21. I think we’d be disingenuous to pretend Edelman doesn’t bring some of that on himself. He seems to talk more trash than Chuck Person out there.
22. For the second time in a couple of weeks, the field microphones caught him saying a word — or a version of it — that only David Ortiz is permitted to say on television per the FCC.
23. There are two things about the NFL that aren’t nearly as evident watching from the couch as they are from the vicinity of the field: the utter car-crash viciousness of even the most rudimentary tackles, and the amount of smack players talk to each other. We get some audio. There’s a reason we don’t get all of it.
24. I’m not sure it would be fair to draw blunt conclusions on the Dolphins’ offense based on Sunday’s debacle. Matt Moore is an adequate veteran backup, with all of the limits and weaknesses that lead to hitting that career ceiling. Those limits and weaknesses were evident on a recurring basis Sunday. But he kept the Dolphins in the game for the most part when it seemed like it was getting out of hand early.
25. The usual starter, Ryan Tannehill, was thriving (his 93.5 rating is a career best) on Adam Gase’s watch before suffering a knee injury in Week 13. And he’s had some moments against the Patriots in recent years. I don’t think Miami wins this game if he plays. But they almost certainly would have looked more competent.
26. Moore did lead the Dolphins to an impressive scoring drive in the second quarter, taking the Dolphins 75 yards in 10 plays in just 2 minutes and 53 seconds. The drive culminated with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry, who ricocheted off Dont’a Hightower and bounded in to the end zone to cut the Patriots lead to 20-7.
27. Belichick offered a lot of praise for Dolphins breakout star Jay Ajayi in the buildup for this one. Made me wonder how close the Patriots came to drafting the running back last year, when Miami stole him in the fifth round out of Boise State. The Dolphins took him 17 picks before the Patriots took long snapper Joe Cardona.
28. Glad that CBS broadcasters Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts don’t play along with that foolish old “Belichick the GM hurts Belichick the coach” talking point. Both praised the Patriots for their savvy personnel moves, including the decision to sign Floyd a couple of weeks ago.
29. Then again, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that narrative is garbage anyway. Belichick’s moves since the end of last season include acquiring Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, Chris Long, Kyle Van Noy, Eric Rowe, and Shea McClellin, re-signing LeGarrette Blount, turning Chandler Jones into Malcolm Mitchell, drafting Joe Thuney, bringing back Dante Scarnecchia, and on and on.
30. There were occasional hiccups — Terrence Knighton got paid well for nothing — but Belichick and Nick Caserio deserve a ton of praise for the personnel adjustments they made after losing the AFC Championship game in the manner they did.
31. Good tidbit from Eagle: Patriots players call Trey Flowers “Technique’’ because that’s how he explains his success whenever coaches point out his positive plays, which apparently happens quite a bit.
32. He’ll be hearing it again this week — Flowers was a beast Sunday, with four tackles, including a ferocious stuff of Ajayi in the first quarter. He was also in Moore’s face all day. Getting him in the fourth round last year looks like a heist.
33. If you had the second quarter for when Ndamukong Suh would do something dubious, congratulations on your mad Nostradamus skills. I thought it would happen later, after the Patriots pulled away and his frustrations inevitably boiled over.
34. What Suh did — toppling David Andrews like a middle school bully while drawing an encroachment penalty — was actually more amusing than dirty. But he doesn’t just play with an edge — you’re always waiting for him to go over it, and he did start up with his antics late in the game, getting into it with Blount a couple of times.
35. The Patriots went undefeated without Gronk this year, 8-0. I miss watching him, and you’d better believe they miss him too in certain situations, but if that’s not a tribute to the depth and balance of this roster, I don’t know what is.