Thirty-eight thoughts on the Patriots’ 38-7 win over the Dolphins . . .
1. Where to start in discussing the Patriots’ reassuring and cathartic thumping of the Dolphins, a victory that felt as important and definitive as any they’ve had in Week 4 in years? How about with two redemption stories that took exactly a week to happen: Sony Michel’s emergence as a running back worthy of his first-round pedigree, and the Patriots’ defense’s impressive resistance against the 3-0 and hapless Dolphins.
2. Michel, the rookie who was being called a bust and worse on sports radio this past week after a tentative 50-yard performance in last Sunday night’s loss to the Lions, was downright dynamic. Michel, a first-rounder out of Georgia who electrified in college, ran for 112 yards and his first touchdown, showing quickness, deft footwork, and the ability to hit the hole now that the line has gotten around to creating a few. He’s going to be better than good.
3. As for the defense, well, that was just plain impressive, and at time when it really needed to be. The Patriots’ D swarmed the Dolphins from the first series through the final whistle, a performance that was, oh, about a 179-degree turnaround from their slow and disjointed performance in the loss to the Lions.
4. The Patriots held Ryan Tannehill to 100 yards passing, or 12 yards fewer than Michel had running the ball. The Dolphins’ leading rusher, Frank Gore, had 41 yards, while their leading receiver, Kenny Stills, had 40, 22 coming on the first play from scrimmage.
5. This one must make Brian Flores feel good, as it should. He’s made it clear in his time with the Patriots that he’s a terrific coach, and more than deserving of replacing Matt Patricia as the defensive coordinator, even if it’s in a de facto role.
6. But one more ugly and uninspiring performance and the radio caterwaulers would have been saying “just asking” regarding whether he was part of the problem. Instead, he’s shown the ability to make the defense get its act together.
7. There were several impressively aggressive plays by the Patriots’ defense in the first half (Dont’a Hightower had two bone-jarring hits), but Kyle Van Noy’s fumble recovery after a Dolphins botched snap in the second quarter might have topped the list. Tannehill should have had the recovery, but Van Noy overpowered him to recover the loose ball. They wanted it, man.
8. Obviously it helped to have Patrick Chung (who might be the glue to this whole thing) and Trey Flowers (probably the closest thing they have to a game-changer on defense) back from concussions. But there were plenty of other excellent performances that made the Dolphins pull a no-show like they thought it was December. J.C. Jackson had his first career interception, Adam Butler and newcomer John Simon each had a sack, and Lawrence Guy had five tackles up front.
9. The Patriots’ defense was lively from the start . . . or almost the start, anyway. Stills made a 22-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage, but Jonathan Jones was a fingertip or two from knocking it away. The Patriots got off the field on the second set of Dolphin downs. Short of, oh, a pick-6, it was exactly what you wanted.
10. It always feels like something of a lost opportunity when a team has to settle for 3 points at the end of a prolonged drive, as the Patriots did on their first possession. But at least there were some encouraging developments on the way to Stephen Gostkowski’s 20-yard field goal, especially the unfairly maligned Michel’s 37 yards on six carries on the drive. There’s progress still to be made, but the promise is evident.
11. Encouraging, too, was Josh Gordon’s first catch as a Patriot, a 13-yarder on a Tom Brady dart into decent coverage to convert a third and 6 to the Miami 3. I’m not sure any other receiver on the Patriots’ current roster catches that ball.
12. Certainly not Cordarrelle Patterson, who on an in-cut in the end zone had a third-and-2 bounce off him in tight coverage a couple of plays later. That would have been a tough catch for a receiver with better hands. Patterson, of course, is much better in space, which he proved with a 55-yard catch-and-run for a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.
13. Patterson had the 55-yard TD catch, but finished with just 54 receiving yards on three catches. If you gave me those numbers and didn’t tell me the receiver who did it, he might be my first choice.
14. Spent a lot of words this past week on how Michel’s slow start is not uncommon among even the best running backs in Patriots history. But the best example might be a guy he sees every day in running back meetings, James White.
15. White played just three games as rookie in 2014, running for 38 total yards. Two years later, he should have been the Super Bowl . . . well, let’s say co-MVP. And now he’s Mr. Reliable for Brady, to the point that he all but pleaded for Josh McDaniels to utilize him more after last week’s loss. Sometimes it takes time.
16. I’d call Brady’s performance a B-minus, at least based on his extremely high standards. Brady finished with good numbers overall, and he was 13 of 22 for 154 yards and two TDs in the first half.
17. But he also missed some throws that actually seemed to be on him rather than receiver, and his interception in the first half appeared to be a case of him not seeing Dolphins safety Bobby McCain in coverage. At least he’s trending the right way.
18. Nice to see Cyrus Jones have a little bit of success with a 24-yard punt return in the first quarter. There’s hope for him yet to develop into the dynamic return man he was supposed to be coming out of Alabama three years ago.
19. Every time I hear Dolphins tackle Laremy Tunsil’s name, I think of the mask. And that will never change.
20. Dwayne Allen’s first catch of the season, with a little less than three minutes remaining in the first half, netted minus-4 yards. I have nothing to add to this.
21. I’ll admit I thought Danny Amendola would have a moment or two against his old team, but he finished with just two catches for 21 yards. Then again, it’s not the playoffs, right?
22. Phillip Dorsett is going to continue to be useful to the Patriots’ offense even when Julian Edelman returns and Gordon becomes more integrated, in part because he’ll slide into a more fitting role. Just because too much is asked of him right now doesn’t mean he can’t be a helpful player.
23. He had a couple of huge plays Sunday. His 13-yard catch-and-run on third and 11 led to the Patriots’ third touchdown of the first half — a diving Dorsett catch for a 9-yard TD. He also had a drop on perhaps Brady’s best throw of the day, a deep ball early in the third quarter.
24. Actually, that was probably Brady’s second-best throw. His best? A perfect alley-oop to White for a 14-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Brady, whose feet were a little happy early on Sunday, took a big hit just as he was letting the ball go and still dropped it into White’s hands.
25. If Matthew Slater is to someday have a genuine shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the CBS sideline reporter from Sunday’s game probably needs to get in first — Steve Tasker. What, you thought I meant Evan Washburn?
26. CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who was on the call with Kevin Harlan as part of the network’s No. 4 NFL team, has some interesting connections to the Patriots. He was the Raiders quarterback during the Snow Bowl — the arguable origin of this unprecedented era of success. He’s now 52, which is just one more confirmation of how long this has been.
27. Gannon never played for the Patriots, despite being a fourth-round pick of theirs out of Delaware in 1987. The Patriots wanted to convert him to running back. Seems weird to spend a fourth-rounder on a project — and it was a project with which Gannon had no interest. The Patriots sent him to the Vikings. They should have no what-if remorse, though. He didn’t become a star until the late ’90s with the Raiders.
28. Awesome milestone for Rob Gronkowski, whose fourth catch of the game was the 491st of his career, putting him ahead of Ben Coates for the most by a tight end in Patriots history. On the downside, that was his last catch on the afternoon — he left early with an ankle injury, one that had him as questionable on the injury report this past week.
29. Coates was a monster in his prime — he was so great at catching Drew Bledsoe’s bullets at close range while blanketed in coverage. With a few more Pro Bowl-caliber seasons he would have a real Hall of Fame case. Gronk, at 29, should already be a lock for Canton.
30. Another milestone of note: Dolphins running back Frank Gore played his 200th game. He’s had a terrific career, but it’s still mind-boggling that he trails only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing list (14,124 yards). That’s more than 5,000 more than Earl Campbell.
31. Feel like we should acknowledge this: Adam Vinatieri set an NFL record Sunday with his 566th field goal — and that excludes his two winning kicks in the Super Bowl, as well as his two iconic kicks in the Snow Bowl, since those were in the postseason.
32. I’d say he should be a first-vote Hall of Famer, but I’m not sure he’s ever going to retire. Congrats to a great Patriot, even though he’s somehow been with the Colts longer.
33. Tannehill was 8 of 15 for 68 yards in the first half. He’s so mediocre he should change his last name to Kitna.
34. Brock Osweiler is the Dolphins’ backup? Somewhere, Jay Cutler watches his deer cam and has no idea about any of this, but smirks anyway.
35. The definition of an irrelevant touchdown? Osweiler’s 6-yard scoring pass to Gore to cut the Patriots’ lead to 31 points midway through the fourth quarter. Too bad. The defense deserved the shutout on this day.
36. As much of a rout as this was, its value can’t be underestimated. Had the Patriots lost, they’d be 1-3, three games plus a tiebreaker back of the Dolphins in the AFC East, and, depending upon how it played out, the subject of countless are-they-finished? soliloquies and rants from those who have been waiting for this to end for a generation now.
37. Instead, it feels like the proper sports world order has been restored, even if the standings in the division have not yet (the Patriots are still a game back of Miami, for now). The defense has come to life, Edelman is coming back, Gordon is going to give them something, and Sunday was the day everything got better for the 2018 Patriots.
38. They are who we thought they were, and who they have been for the last 18 years — a team that rarely loses three in a row, knows how to repair its flaws on the fly, and will be reckoned with when the games matter most.