Report card: Patriots-Dolphins
When your team records a 28-0 shutout at home to seal a first-round bye in the playoffs, it's hard to knock the efforts of the coaching staff. Bill Belichick's message was clear to the players all week: without a win, the Patriots couldn't improve their playoff positioning. It kept the focus on the game at hand, and helped to prevent a second-straight "What is going on here?" game, following last week's debacle in Jacksonville. Oh, and the icing on the cake for the coaches? Having backup quarterback Ryan Mallett make like Jets quarterback Tim Tebow and line up on the punt unit, forcing the Dolphins to burn a timeout in confusion. Brilliant.
Something still wasn't quite right for Tom Brady after an off-game against the Jaguars a week ago. He went 22-of-36 passing, an impressive 61% completion percentage, but there were some throws that gave you the feeling Brady wasn't as razor-sharp as he can be. Tight end Aaron Hernandez had a drop early in the game, and finished with five catches for an 8.8-yard average. It's not bad, but it's not Hernandez-like either, which is a cause for some concern heading into the playoffs. Same goes for Brandon Lloyd, who was targeted five times and reeled in just one catch. What's not troublesome is the play of Danny Woodhead and Wes Welker, who combined for over 60 percent of Brady's passing yards on the night.
No fumbles here, which is a positive for this unit after ball security became a major issue just two weeks ago. Also a plus was hanging 167 yards on the NFL's ninth-best rushing defense, which allowed an average of just 104 yards through the first 15 games. The Patriots were able to mix in both Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden for the first time several weeks, with the pair of backs combining for an over 4-yard average.
The Dolphins have hardly a world-beating passing offense, and the Patriots didn't make it look any better than it is, which helped the defense as a whole. The coverage in the back end was a major contributing factor to the seven sacks of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the highest total in over five years. The Dolphins posted four passing plays of 20 yards or more, but three of those came in Dolphins territory. Few would say Sunday's performance will translate into a tighter pass defense in the playoffs, but it was a step in the right direction after a rough outing in Jacksonville.
Statistically, this was one of the best performances of the season for the Patriots, although the Dolphins barely made a commitment to running the ball. On just 15 total carries -- two of which were Tannehill scrambles -- the Dolphins managed just 47 yards, for a mere 3.1 yard average. Had it not been for Reggie Bush's self-induced fumble at the goal line, the Patriots likely would have allowed a rushing touchdown in this game, but they didn't, so high marks here.
With wind a factor, it was a good day for punter Zoltan Mesko, who boomed a 56-yarder in the third quarter, while landing four of his five punts overall inside the 20-yard line. The Patriots coverage units had no problem with explosive Dolphins returner Marcus Thigpen, who was held to a 14-yard average on his three kickoff returns. And, of course, there was Ryan Mallett's cameo on the punt unit, forcing a Dolphins timeout. Double points for that one.