It wasn’t a pretty win. Nor was it a particularly efficient one.
But the New England Patriots, short-handed on both lines, battled through injuries and inefficiency to grind out a 23-16 win at Sun Life Stadium.
The win clinched the AFC East for the Patriots, and gave Tom Brady a record tenth division title, passing Joe Montana. The Patriots also moved at least temporarily into the second seed in the AFC playoff race, courtesy of a superior conference record over both Baltimore and Denver who, like New England, are now 9-3.
The Patriots took advantage of a Miami miscue to get an early lead. Brandon Fields bobbled a punt after Miami’s first drive, and the Patriots forced a change of possession at the Dolphins’ 12 yard line, scoring five plays later on a two yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley. After a Miami punt the Patriots drove to the Miami 31, but Stephen Gostkowski missed a 49 yard field goal to the right, continuing his struggles. The Dolphins were not able to take advantage of the field position, but Brady committed a rare miscue on the next Patriots’ drive, trying to force a pass to Aaron Hernandez despite excellent coverage by Reshad Jones, who picked the pass off and gave Miami the ball at the Patriots’ 34 yard line. The Dolphins were forced to settle for a field goal, cutting the Patriots’ lead to 7-3.
New England responded, as it often does, with a classic drive going 13 plays and using 5:40 off the clock to march down the field before Brady connected with Wes Welker on a 7 yard touchdown and increased the lead to 14-3. Then, on the next possession it looked like the Patriots would put the game away early when Trevor Scott sacked Ryan Tannehill and forced the ball out of his hand, which Vince Wilfork promptly recovered at the Dolphins’ 25. But the Patriots could not take advantage of the short field and were forced to settle for a 43 yard field goal to increase the lead to 17-3.
The Dolphins then responded with an impressive drive of their own, with Tannehill navigating the Dolphins on a ten play, 80 yard drive that took up almost all of the time remaining before Tannehill ran the ball in from two yards out, cutting the halftime lead to 17-10.
The third quarter saw the game develop into a defensive struggle, as neither team could sustain drives. The Patriots got things moving at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth, putting together a 13 play drive, but again needed to settle for a field goal after a sack by Koa Misi ended a Patriots’ threat. The Dolphins struck back with a field goal to make it a one score game, but then the Patriots executed probably their most important drive of the day, using 16 plays and 7:18 while handing the ball off to Stevan Ridley ten times. The Patriots added a field goal with 1:15 left to extend the lead to 23-13. The Dolphins tacked on a late field goal, but Brandon Lloyd recovered the ensuing off-sides kick, effectively ending the game.
When the Patriots ran:
The announcers made a big deal out of the Patriots only rushing for ten yards in the first half, but the Patriots only ran the ball eight times; the run was schemed out in the first half. As the game moved on and it was clear that the game would go down to the wire, the Patriots shortened the game by pounding the ball effectively against the Dolphins. While the 108 yards gained by the Patriots wasn’t overly impressive, the fact that the Patriots ran the ball when they needed to, against one of the top run defenses, tilts this to the Patriots. Ridley ran for 71 yards on 19 carries, and went over 1,000 yards for the season. Danny Woodhead added 24 yards on 6 carries. Advantage: Patriots
When the Patriots passed:
For as bad a pass defense as the Dolphins have, the Patriots simply could not take control of the game through the air on Sunday. Brady was was not particularly sharp, missing throws while also under regular pressure from the Dolphins’ front seven. Brady was sacked four times but seemingly under pressure all day, as the Dolphins limited Brady to 24/40 for 238 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Wes Welker, the ultimate Dolphin killer, had twelve receptions for 103 yards and a score. Aaron Hernandez added 8 catches for 97 yards, but both Welker and Hernandez dropped balls that should have been caught. Advantage: Dolphins
When the Dolphins ran:
The Dolphins rushed for 101 yards, just seven fewer than the Patriots, but unlike the Patriots could not sustain drives with the run when they needed to. Reggie Bush was routinely stuffed in the second half as the Dolphins’ offense struggled to find any traction. Bush rushed for 64 yards on 16 carries, and both Tannehill and Daniel Thomas rushed five times each for a combined 29 yards. Advantage: Patriots
When the Dolphins passed:
Ryan Tannehill did not look sharp on Sunday, going 13/29 for 186 yards. He was stripped on one sack, though he avoided throwing any interceptions. Tannehill twice missed an open Brian Hartline deep, and was also undone by drops. The Patriots recorded three sacks on the day, two by Trevor Scott, but the pressure sometimes aided Tannehill as he was effective creating plays with his legs. At first blush the Patriots secondary played well, though Tannehill failed to take advantage of the lapses in New England’s coverages. Advantage: Patriots
Ghost missed yet another field goal, his sixth of the season, but connected on three others. His kickoffs resulted in five touchbacks as the Dolphins’ return game was neutralized. Carpenter went 3/3 on field goals, and added three touchbacks. Mesko had a mediocre punting performance, while the game turned in part on the performance of Fields, who was solid in pinning the Patriots deep in their own end twice, but whose early mishandling of a punt turned out to be a key play in the game. Slight edge to the Pats based on that. Advantage: Patriots
The Patriots showed gutsy determination in putting away a division foe that has historically given them trouble, pounding the ball throughout the fourth quarter to put the game away. For their part, the Dolphins staved off being blown out in the first half, and Ryan Tannehill kept his composure and kept the Dolphins in the context until the end. The turnovers were even, with each team turning the ball over once. Advantage: Even
Key Moment: A Jerod Mayo sack on 3rd and 7 with 8:53 remaining in the game ended a Dolphins’ drive and forced them to settle for a Dan Carpenter field goal.
Game Ball: Wes Welker with 12 receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown