When the Patriots ran:
In a strange twist of events the Patriots game plan called for a heavy dose of Steven Jackson and the running game. That decision came despite the fact that New England hasn't been able to run the ball effectively at all this season. Sunday was certainly no exception. Jackson got it early and often but never found any success. He carried 10 times for just 28 yards in a first half that saw the Patriots run the ball 20 times (excluding a Tom Brady kneel down) and pass just five. The runs virtually disappeared in the second half but that didn't improve the production at all. Jackson wound up with 14 carries for 35 yards for a pathetic 2.5-yard average. He did manage to move the chains on a third-and-two in the first half and bulled his way into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Otherwise he looked slow and ineffective, but behind this offensive line most running backs would struggle. Brandon Bolden had only 31 yards on nine carries (3.5-yard average) and as a team the Patriots attempted 27 runs and picked up only 70 yards (2.6-yard average). That's not enough to keep any defense honest in the playoffs.
When the Patriots passed:
Brady never really had a chance in this one as Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels tried to win the game by having him hand the ball off throughout the first half. On the rare occasions they let Brady throw it was generally a screen pass. Predictably that did not lead to any production and Brady was never in a rhythm. In the second half when the reins were loosened a bit, fans got to see why the coaches were so cautious. Despite throwing so infrequently the Dolphins had little trouble turning up the heat. Brady was sacked just twice but was hit on six others and was stripped on one of the sacks. Considering he attempted just 21 passes that's a lot of pressure – and one hit from Ndamukong Suh led to an injured right ankle. Brady was able to stay in the game but was limping pretty good after it was over. Aside from a nifty catch and run from James White on a short pass over the middle that the back turned a 10-yard toss into a 68-yard pickup after making a pair of tacklers miss, the passing game was non-existent. Brady hit on just 12 of those 21 passes for a season-low 134 yards and failed to throw a touchdown for the first time this season. Again, the offensive line will need to be better in the postseason.
When the Dolphins ran:
Things started a bit shaky for a Patriots front coming off a subpar effort against the Jets. The Dolphins recorded efficient runs (4 yards or more, first down, TD) on six of their first eight attempts and Lamar Miller ripped off a 29-yarder on Miami's second series, which ended with a field goal. But from that point on New England completely dominated up front, as 20 of Miami's final 23 runs were stuffed (excluding Ryan Tannehill kneel downs). Akiem Hicks, Malcom Brown and Alan Branch plugged up the middle effectively, shutting down the running lanes and allowing the linebackers to make the plays. Miller finished with just 60 yards on 19 carries (3.2-yard average) and that included the 29-yarder. Jay Ajayi was even less effective with 2 yards on seven carries. Miami was able to continue to try to run the ball because of the score but this was a dominant effort from the Patriots front seven. Despite racking up 34 carries Miami was limited to 96 yards on the ground for a 2.8-yard average.
When the Dolphins passed:
Despite the fact that the ineffectiveness of the running game left the Dolphins in several long-yardage situations, Tannehill was able to convert nearly 50 percent of his third-downs (8 of 17 for 47 percent). Miami entered the game as one of the worst teams in the league in such situations but Tannehill carved up the New England secondary to the tune of 350 yards on 25 of 38 passing. He tossed a pair of touchdowns and avoided the turnovers that have caused him so much trouble all season. Jarvis Landry caught six of those passes for 72 yards but it was rookie DeVante Parker who did the real damage. Parker finished with five catches on six targets for 106 yards and a touchdown, most of which came with Logan Ryan on coverage. Veteran Greg Jennings also enjoyed a huge game with four catches for 74 yards with a 31-yard grab coming with Ryan in coverage. With Chandler Jones out and Rob Ninkovich limited by a shin injury, the Patriots pass rush was held to one sack – by rookie Geneo Grissom – and Tannehill had enough time to find the matchups he desired and the Dolphins offense enjoyed one of its best days of the season.
The Patriots late-season slide has been particularly evident on special teams, where they've made game-changing mistakes on virtually a weekly basis of late. In Miami the mistakes were a bit more subtle but not any less damaging. The key play took place in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 10. The Dolphins were forced to punt from midfield and Danny Amendola returned it 21 yards to the Patriots 36. But Bolden was called for running into the punter, and even though Miami didn't get a first down on the play it forced a re-kick and this time Matt Darr's boot was fair caught at the 8. Then Dekoda Watson was called for holding, pushing the ball back to the 4. The change in field position was significant as the Patriots managed just one first down before punting and soon the Dolphins went down the field for the go-ahead touchdown. Stephen Gostkowski also missed a 46-yard field goal, and even though Miami's Andrew Franks also missed a 46-yarder the penalties on the exchange were enough to give the Dolphins the edge.