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Why do the Patriots seem to play better on the road?

Ted Karras (75) snapping the ball past an unsuspecting Tom Brady was one of several Patriot miscues on Sunday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots beat the Dolphins on Sunday for their seventh straight win, improving to 9-2 and guaranteeing they’d keep pace with the Steelers for home-field advantage in the playoffs. (Pittsburgh beat Green Bay, 31-28, on Sunday night.)

The question is, do the Patriots even want it?

Their 35-17 win at Gillette Stadium wasn’t exactly the most satisfying. It was marred by sloppy play on offense and special teams, with the Patriots making several uncharacteristic mistakes to let the Dolphins hang around longer than they should have.

And Sunday’s win continued an odd trend for the Patriots this season. Their sharpest performances have all come on the road — a 36-20 win at New Orleans, a 41-16 win at Denver, and a 33-8 win vs. Oakland in Mexico City. The Patriots are 5-0 on the road this year and have won 13 straight dating to the 2016 season.

But for some reason, the Patriots don’t play as well in the friendly confines of Gillette. They were blown out by Kansas City, needed a last-second miracle to beat the Texans, had a terrible loss to the Panthers, struggled to score points in a win over the Chargers, and had several self-inflicted wounds in Sunday’s win over the Dolphins.


The only truly satisfying home win this year was the 23-7 victory over the Falcons, but even then the Patriots’ offense still struggled to finish in the red zone.

“We know we’ve got to play smarter football as an offense,” said Brandin Cooks, who had six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. “Great win, don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, that wasn’t our best game.”

Obviously, scoring 35 points and winning by 18 is a great result for any team. But the Patriots aren’t any team — they’re the Patriots, and the standards are higher.


They should have won Sunday’s game by 50. And they should be executing better at home than they have been.

“The expectations are really high because of what teams in the past have done,” Tom Brady said. “And I think the guys that come and sit in these chairs right here and look up at Coach [Bill] Belichick understand kind of what we’re playing for and the history of the team and the expectations. They understand that. We started 2-2, and to be 9-2 with seven straight wins is pretty good. But we know our biggest games are ahead of us because all of the good teams now are going to start playing really well, and we’ve got to be one of those teams.”

There was plenty to like about the Patriots’ win. The defense was fantastic for the seventh straight game, allowing just 10 points, forcing three turnovers, and compiling a season-high seven sacks against Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore.

The running game was excellent, with the Patriots rushing for a season-high 196 yards, led by 112 from Dion Lewis, his first career 100-yard game. The Patriots built an early lead, scored touchdowns on all five trips inside the red zone, and never had much concern against the Dolphins.

But after two perfect games on the road, this was an ugly win for the Patriots.

It started in the second quarter when Ted Karras snapped the ball over an unsuspecting Brady. Reshad Jones scooped up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown, and a game that was on the verge of a blowout suddenly became 14-7.


“I just snapped it early,” said Karras, playing in place of an injured David Andrews. “It was kind of a nightmare, but we overcame it.”

Ted Karras (75) snapped the ball but Tom Brady (12) wasn’t expecting it.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Then Brady threw a bad interception, just his third of the season. The Patriots entered the game with five giveaways all season, but had two in the first half.

“It was just a bad decision,” Brady said of his interception. “They played a coverage that was pretty good for covering those plays and I just forced it. I try not to do that very often.”

Danny Amendola muffed a punt that he probably should have fair caught. The offensive line struggled with the Dolphins’ defensive front, allowing Brady to take several big shots as part of the eight official hits he absorbed. The screen game was awful, and Rex Burkhead was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 run. After committing just three penalties the last two weeks, the Patriots committed seven for 70 yards on Sunday.

Even the reliable special teams unit faltered, taking a delay of game penalty on an extra point.

“We left a lot of plays on the field,” a subdued Belichick said after the win. “Had some lapses in our play that we need to eliminate. We lost the ball on offense, could’ve tackled better, could’ve defended a couple of plays in the passing game better defensively. We’ll turn the page here.”


Whether their concentration lapses when they are at home, or they aren’t feeding off the home crowd like they do the road crowd, or it’s just plain coincidence, the Patriots said they don’t know why they aren’t playing as crisply at home.

“If we had those answers we’d play great every week,” safety Devin McCourty said. “That’s the National Football League. It’s trying to find consistency, it’s trying to play well every time you step on the field. I think overall, the most important thing is to get a win and try to learn from it.”

The Patriots now face three straight games on the road, including a crucial Week 15 game at Pittsburgh that could determine home-field advantage. They won’t see Gillette Stadium again until Christmas Eve.

Considering how well they’ve been playing on the road, and how inconsistently they’re playing at home, this road trip doesn’t look so daunting.

“We’ve got three coming up on the road, so I hope that trend continues,” Brady said. “I wish we were playing perfect football, but it’s not the case all season long. That’s a good win today — 35 points, and defense made a bunch of plays. We’ll stay after it.”

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin