…The first big play of the game came on special teams, just four plays from scrimmage into this contest. The Patriots hadn't run a regular season fake punt in 13 years, and it had been seven years since they last tried one in the playoffs. So, it's not as if the Dolphins should have been expecting this, particularly since the Patriots were so deep in their own territory (their own 27-yard line).
It was brilliantly conceived, perfectly timed, and almost flawlessly executed. Miami had eight players in the box for what looked like a punt block attempt. This left just one vice guy on either side of the formation. The ball was snapped from the right hash, and personal protector Nate Ebner took that snap and ran to the short side of the field (toward New England's bench). The gunner on that side ran as he normally would down field to draw the vice guy with him and open up a lane for Ebner. Brandon Bolden also threw a critical block on the right side at the line of scrimmage to help free Ebner.
As he approached the sideline after picking up the 1st down, Ebner planted hard with his left leg to avoid a Dolphin, then was hit from the side of that same leg as he was tackled out of bounds. It also looked as if his right knee buckled as he planted that leg, so, it's unclear exactly which knee was affected.
However, media reports Monday morning confirmed what many of us expected at the time – that Ebner had suffered a season-ending injury. Ebner had been having a solid season, even appearing on this year's Pro Bowl ballot for special teams contributors. With co-captain Matthew Slater already on the shelf with a hamstring injury that has plagued him all year, New England was dealt a serious blow to its core special teams units, which it treats with as much seriousness as its offense and defense.
Fellow safety Jordan Richards later replaced Ebner as the personal protector.
…Seemed like a busted Miami coverage in the Dolphins' secondary that allowed WR Phillip Dorsett to get wide open on a 39-yard catch-and-run on that same drive to help set up New England's first touchdown of the day.
…That touchdown came on a fantastic short-yardage play with RB Rex Burkhead carrying the ball over the goal line. Burkhead had five blockers forming a wedge in front of him to his left side. TEs Rob Gronkowski and rookie Jacob Hollister along with LT Nate Solder, LG Joe Thuney, and FB James Develin bulldozed four Dolphin defenders. Meanwhile, a low block by fill-in center Ted Karras on DE Andre Branch kept Branch from entering the backfield and taking Burkhead down. Burkhead then just following his convoy into the end zone.
…Karras took full responsibility for his mistimed shotgun snap to QB Tom Brady which Miami scooped up and scored. Nothing more than a mental error by the backup center, who has played otherwise very well in the past two games filling in for the still ill David Andrews.
…Not sure Burkhead didn't get into the end zone on the ground just before his second touchdown, but that's what Ron Torbert's officiating crew ruled. Didn't matter in the end, because Brady tossed a TD to him on the very next play. Burkhead did a nice job of separating from rookie LB Chase Allen on the goal line, then adjusted his body rather athletically to haul in Brady's pass over the head of Allen.
…Brady's third INT of the season seemed to be a result of his underthrowing his intended target, WR Danny Amendola. There was a little heat coming up the middle in Brady's face, so, perhaps he couldn't step into his throw properly.
…The Patriots seemed to do more blitzing in this game than I can remember in any other all season. One instance where it paid off was at the end of the first half, as Miami was driving deep into Patriots territory. New England sent CB Malcolm Butler on a corner blitz against Miami's left tackle, who was initially occupied by DE Trey Flowers. When Laremy Tunsil saw Butler coming, he abandoned Flowers, possibly assuming that his partner at left guard, former Patriot Ted Larsen, would pick him up. However, Larsen was dealing with rookie DL Adam Butler. Larsen reacted too late, allowing Flowers to skirt free toward QB Matt Moore and bring him down for a 5-yard loss.
…Stephon Gilmore has taken his lumps from Patriots observers this season, but he came up with a couple of big plays in this game. One came at the end of the half when he picked off Moore in the end zone. Moore was attempting to connect with WR DeVante Parker on a back-shoulder throw, but Parker didn't seem to be on the same page with his QB. Gilmore read the play accurately and timed his jump to put himself between Parker and the ball as it came down.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…Statistically, Dion Lewis had the best game of his pro career. He carried 15 times for 112 yards, and nearly half of those came on runs of 22 and 25 yards, during which he displayed the speed, cutting quickness, and decisiveness that first endeared him to the Patriots back in 2015. His offensive line run-blocked very well in this game, but Lewis also seems to have regained his '15 form fully after that bad knee injury two Novembers ago.
…As well as the o-line did for Lewis, they had their hands full in pass protection. Brady was drilled numerous times by Miami pass rushers after he unloaded the football, including his second touchdown throw to Gronk.
…Malcolm Butler has become adept at punching the ball from the arms of opposing players, and that's exactly what Flowers did to cause RB Kenyan Drake to fumble in the 3rd quarter. Normally, these kinds of forced fumbles happen from behind, but Flowers made the play head-on against Drake. Safety Patrick Chung dove on the loose ball to complete the turnover.
…LB Elandon Roberts had a good day versus Miami with a pair of sacks. The first one was a nice display of Roberts' athleticism and speed as he chased down a scrambling Moore from behind for a 3-yard loss.
…Very next play, Flowers notched his second sack of the day when he blew past Tunsil to the inside. As he wrapped up Moore and threw him to the ground, Flowers suffered a rib injury. Although he managed to come back briefly later in the game, he didn't finish the contest, but spoke to reporters afterward – usually an indication that a player's injury isn't too serious.
…I wasn't thrilled with New England's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1, rather than kick a 43-yard field goal at the start of the 4th quarter. Especially with the wind at their backs. The Patriots failed to pick up that necessary yard because Miami read the run play all the way and got a great push against the left side of the o-line. I'd have preferred they try for the three points and up their lead to 21. Instead, the Dolphins took over and drove for their only offensive touchdown of the game.
…Somebody on New England's defense forgot to account for Drake on that touchdown, as he took a swing pass out of the backfield and walked into the Patriots' end zone without a New England defender in sight.
…RT LaAdrian Waddle appeared to have a Dolphin player roll up on his legs from behind, causing him to leave the game with a right ankle injury. Waddle had been filling in rather well for regular starter Marcus Cannon, who continues to deal with a left ankle issue that's plagued him since before the bye week. Cam Fleming subbed for Waddle for the remainder of the Miami game. Remains to be seen just how long Waddle will be shelved.
…Roberts collected his second sack when he perfectly timed his delayed blitz up the middle and Moore never saw him coming till it was too late.
…Far too many key players injured themselves in this game. LB Kyle Van Noy was among them after he took down Moore with a good inside blitz that saw him beat the right guard with a rip move. In the process of taking Moore to the turf, Van Noy injured his right leg and had to leave. Could be the lengthiest injury report of the year for New England coming up this Wednesday.
…Newcomer Eric Lee, working in tandem with rookie DL Butler, executed a textbook stunt to get his first sack as a Patriot.