The New England Patriots got their hats and T-shirts Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, but the Miami Dolphins kept the Week 15 game from resembling an AFC East-clincher during the first half. And even during the first play.
It was then that Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill found wideout Mike Wallace 50 yards down the sideline beyond undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler. Three runs followed as the kicker Caleb Sturgis and the Miami field-goal unit came on to try a 41-yarder. Yet Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins stayed on to block it, sending the football back along with cornerback Kyle Arrington for a 62-yard touchdown.
The moment marked New England’s third blocked field goal of the season and a 7-0 lead. Only it wouldn’t mark the end of Miami’s efforts to continue their season. Dolphins backup Jason Trusnik illustrated those efforts with 5:53 to go in the opening quarter.
Thrust into a starting role after injuries left Miami four Miami linebackers short, Trusnik dropped back into underneath coverage as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass. And when the 14-year pro did so, the Ohio Northern standout proceeded to stand out, batting the ball up and into his own hands for the interception.
With that, New England’s second offensive drive was stifled in Dolphins territory.
Miami went on to kick another field goal eight plays later. And this time, there would be no Patriot there to stop it.
The Dolphins has trimmed the game to a 7-3 one heading into the second, but Tannehill and the attack could let it slip along with a 3rd-and-14 overthrown pass intended for receiver Brandon Gibson down the hashes. Patriots second-year safety Duron Harmon was there to intercept it with under nine minutes remaining in the half, taking it back 60 yards behind the lead blocks of fellow safety Tavon Wilson. And from there, eight yards out of the end zone, the Patriots would forge the ball in after three snaps and a three-yard scamper by tailback Shane Vereen.
Vereen’s first rushing touchdown since the Patriots’ Week 1 loss to Miami at Sun Life Stadium stretched lead to 11. But the Dolphins would hang around, connecting on a 53-yard field goal on the team’s ensuing possession.
The score remained 14-6 until New England sought to drain the final 40 seconds of the second quarter. One Vereen carry was met by another, and then another, as the Patriots netted two yards and the Dolphins expended three consecutive timeouts to get the ball back.
The Dolphins got the back and then some, as rookie wideout and returner Jarvis Landry took a Ryan Allen punt 32 yards back the way it came.
A 32-yard one-handed catch from Tannehill to Wallace was eventually ruled a touchdown just one play later.
Tannehill’s first scoring strike of 21-plus yards on the year sent the Dolphins into intermission down just one. And, up just one, the Patriots headed into intermission with less passing yards than Wallace’s own 89 receiving yards. But the Patriots would head out for the second half differently.
Former Dolphins running back Jonas Gray entered the game for the New England’s first offensive play of the third quarter. Brady sold the handoff to him thenceforth, hitting Rob Gronkowski down the seam to put the 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end over 1,000 yards for the second time in his career on his first catch of the contest.
Then it was Gray’s turn to provide a spark, moving ahead for seven yards on a reception and five yards on a carry, as the Patriots began to develop the ground game that was limited to 21 yards on 12 carries over the first 30 minutes.
Thenceforth, Brady would carry the ball himself for 17 yards, becoming the team’s top rusher in the process before Patriots broke through with a LeGarrette Blount three-yard rushing score to put the Patriots up eight.
The tides shifted on that drive. Miami would not score again. New England would.
A 35-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski set the kicker atop the franchise’s all-time scoring list as New England handled a 24-13 lead. One play later, cornerback Brandon Browner jarred the football into the air as safety Patrick Chung handle his first interception since 2012.
Brady, in turn, was able find Gronkowski for the tight end’s 11th touchdown of the season. But the Patriots were not done, there. The flurry was followed by six-yard toss from Brady to wide receiver Julian Edelman with 1:33 to go in the third, extending the triumph to 38-13.
New England had scored 24 unanswered points, and the unit would tack on another three before the opportunistic defense pinned its ears back versus an urgent Miami passing game. Defensive end Chandler Jones swung around the edge to sack Tannehill and force a fumble. And defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins, as well as fellow defensive end Rob Ninkovich managed to follow suit with the the pressure.
Sometimes the Patriots rushed three. Sometimes they rushed five. The lone constant was the clock.
Miami’s chances ran out on a failed 4th-and-23, and second-round quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ran onto the field for the Patriots with 2:25 to play.
Four exchanges to Gray later, it was over. So was the AFC East race, as New England moved to 11-3, and head coach Bill Belichick moved into a tie with Curly Lambeau for fourth in NFL history with 229 all-time wins.
1. Gray Brings Burst to Running Game: Gray’s first contributions Sunday came with a special-teams tackle in the first half. Yet in the second half, the halfback who had totaled three carries for 13 yards since totaling 37 for 201 yards and four touchdowns a month ago reemerged elsewhere. The 5-foot-10, 225-pound Notre Dame product reemerged in the offensive backfield, showcasing burst through the tackles on the way to finishing with 11 carries for 62 yards. Against a Miami front that had conceded 661 rushing yards over its last three games, Brady, Blount, Vereen and Edelman combined for 46 yards on 18 carries.
2. New England’s Pass Protection Ready in Second Meeting: In the season opener, Brady was sacked four times, hit six times and hurried 19 times while dropping back to pass. New England’s new-look offensive line fared better in the Week 15 reunion with Miami’s pass rush, and even though their protection wasn’t perfect, it was enough to make a difference. Defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon were kept at bay for most of the game, and the Dolphins were unable to bring Brady down for a single sack during their trip to Foxborough.
3. Patriots Receivers Setting Standard: Gronkowski posted three catches for 96 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter alone, bringing his season marks to 76 catches, 1,093 yards and 11 scores. The tight end set the bar high, but other Patriots are closing in behind him as well. With an eight-catch, 88-yard day that culminated in a TD, Edelman is now just eight catches and 28 receiving yards away from his second 100-catch, 1,000-yard season in a row. And first-year Patriots “X” receiver Brandon LaFell’s six-catch, 66-yard day now has him at 63 catches for 819 yards and seven touchdowns – all career-bests.
4. Jones, Hightower Return to Deepened Front: In his first game since October’s lingering hip injury, Jones looked at full strength, working both sides of the defensive line to amass four tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. And while his high-volume workload came at the expense of Akeem Ayers, who’s filled his place admirably since coming over from the Tennessee Titans, the end result is a deep defensive rotation. The same can be said of Hightower, who was back wearing the green dot at linebacker for New England after missing last week with a shoulder injury. No. 54 notched four tackles, a half-sack and a forced fumble versus the Dolphins, closing in on the pass as well as halfback Lamar Miller with force.
5. Injuries Draw Attention: New England’s victory was not without attrition, as Arrington left the game with a hamstring injury and left guard Dan Connolly followed with a neck injury. Neither returned after being ruled questionable to do so. However, Arrington was spotted on the sideline in a sweatshirt, looking on as corners Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan, Butler and Browner filtered between Wallace, Landry and Brandon Gibson. And Connolly was spotted later on, while second-year guard Josh Kline stepped into his place on the line.