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Game Observations: Lewis, Pats grind out win

For the seventh straight week the Patriots defense allowed 17 or fewer points and for the seventh straight week the Patriots posted a victory. Sunday’s 35-17 win over the visiting Miami Dolphins kept the Patriots in control of the AFC East and on pace with the Pittsburgh Steelers atop the AFC.

Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots latest victory.

-It may sound strange on a day where Tom Brady tossed four touchdown passes but it was the work of the Patriots ground game that was key to the victory. Dion Lewis remained in the lead back role and turned in the best performance of his career, carrying 15 times for 112 yards. Lewis was at his big play best, turning in carries of 25, 25, 22 and 13 yards on the way to the first 100-yard day of his career. Rex Burkhead also had his moments on the ground, picking up 50 yards on 13 carries including a 2-yard touchdown. Burkhead also had a 22-yard run to his credit. James White (three carries, 13 yards) wasn’t used often but he turned in a couple of productive runs to convert third downs. Overall the ground game accounted for 196 yards on 38 carries for a solid 5.2-yard average and it was a big part of the offense.

-Despite all of that production, Brady still managed to make some big plays, most notably involving Rob Gronkowski. Brady finished 18 of 28 for 227 yards and four touchdowns and an interception, his first since Week 6 against the Jets. Brady did a terrific job of eluding pressure in the first half and managed to find open receivers to convert third downs. Gronk was a big part of that, catching five passes for 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His second catch gave him 6,756 receiving yards and moved him past Kellen Winslow for 10th all-time on the tight ends list. He also grabbed his 73rd touchdown catch from Brady, which pushed that pair past Drew Brees and Marques Colston for the fifth-most in NFL history. It was also his 16th game with multiple receiving touchdowns, one more than Randy Moss for the most in Patriots history.

-In conjunction with the solid work on offense, the Patriots defense continues to make strides week after week. The Dolphins game marked the seventh straight week that New England held its opponent to 17 points or less, and seven of those points came on a turnover. The worked in the red zone has been particularly impressive as the Patriots turned Miami aside twice in three trips inside their 20. The first came when Malcolm Butler was called for a 34-yard pass interference penalty on a flea-flicker when Kenny Stills got behind him. The defense held Miami to a field goal. Late in the first half as Miami appeared to be driving for a potential score, Stephon Gilmore picked off Matt Moore’s pass intended for DeVante Parker in the end zone to thwart the drive. Instead of potentially allowing 14 points and possibly allowing the Dolphins to have life, the defense limited the damage and went to the locker room with a two-score lead at 21-10.

-While the stout defense was a continuation of what has been happening in recent weeks, one surprising development was the late play of the pass rush. The Patriots finished with a season-high seven sacks, six of which came in the second half and five in the final quarter. Trey Flowers and Elandon Roberts had two apiece while Jonathan Jones, Eric Lee and Kyle Van Noy added one each. It was a great knockout blow provided by the defense protecting a healthy lead.

-Marcus Cannon (ankle) was unable to go for the third straight week and that meant another start for LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle. David Andrews also missed his second straight game due to an illness, putting Ted Karras back in the starting lineup at center. Unlike last week in Mexico, things weren’t perfect up front against the Dolphins. Miami put considerable pressure on Brady throughout the first half despite no recording a single sack. Brady took some hits as he threw and was forced to get rid of the ball quicker than he wanted on a few other, most notably on a third-down throw late in the first half that he short-armed and had intercepted by Bobby McCain at the Dolphins 35.

-The switches up front also led to more serious problems, specifically with Karras. The fill-in center wasn’t on the same page with Brady in the second quarter and sent a shotgun snap back before the quarterback was ready and the play resulted in a touchdown. Brady was looking to his right as the ball sailed past him, and he was unable to recover the loose ball as Miami safety Reshad Jones scooped it up and raced 14 yards for a touchdown. Karras appeared to snap it too early as Joe Thuney was caught off guard and knocked off his feet. Communication issues were also evident on a pair of false starts – one on Waddle and the other on Solder – which were perhaps a result of the change at center. Waddle appeared to suffer a right leg/ankle injury in the fourth quarter and Cam Fleming was pressed into service. On his first snap, Fleming was beat cleanly by Cameron Wake for a sack on a play in which Brady mishandled a shotgun snap.

-Newcomer Eric Lee was active after being signed off Buffalo’s practice squad earlier in the week. He took the roster spot created by the release of Cassius Marsh. Lee took some snaps in sub packages at left defensive end in his debut with the Patriots and came up with his first-career sack in the fourth quarter.

-After missing the previous three games Malcom Brown was back in the lineup and took his spot at defensive tackle in a rotation with Alan Branch and Lawrence Guy.

-The Patriots broke out some trickery on the first drive of the game and it paid off. After being held to a three-and-out on the first possession of the day, New England opted to fake the punt and Nate Ebner, serving as the personal protector for Ryan Allen, easily picked up the first down with a 14-yard pickup around right end to convert the fourth-and-seven. Unfortunately Ebner was injured his knee on the play and did not return. His knee appeared to buckle as he made his way toward the sideline as he tried to cut back. Jordan Richards replaced him as the personal protector on the punt team. A 13-yard Lewis run followed Ebner’s big play, and then Brady hit Phillip Dorsett for 39 yards down to the Dolphins 7. Two plays later, Burkhead opened the scoring with a 2-yard plunge. The last time the Patriots attempted a fake punt I the regular season was Dec. 12, 2004, against Cincinnati when Larry Izzo was stopped for no gain. The Patriots also had a failed fake punt in the playoffs against the Jets in the 2010 divisional round when Patrick Chung was stopped shy of the first down.

-Trevor Reilly and Dolphins running back Senorise Perry were involved in a violent collision on the opening kickoff of the second half. The two crashed into each at full speed inside the 20 and both appeared to be out of their feet before they hit the ground. Reilly did not return. Reilly saw action on defense in the first half and nearly made a huge play when Miami went for it on fourth-and-one but couldn’t quite corral Damien Williams in the backfield and the Dolphins running back managed to pick up the first down.

-The win was the ninth of the year for the Patriots, giving New England 17 straight winning seasons and moving past San Francisco and Dallas for the longest such streak since the NFL merger in 1970.

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