After consecutive, well-rounded blowouts on the road, the Patriots (9-2) returned to Gillette Stadium for a convincing but at times sloppy victory in Sunday afternoon's 35-17 win over the Dolphins (4-7).
New England now has a seven-game winning streak, while Miami has lost five in a row as Bill Belichick's team appears to be pulling away for yet another AFC East title.
Really the only thing that kept Miami in the contest early on, which New England led 21-10 at halftime, was an errant, premature shotgun snap from backup center Ted Karras that led to a scoop-and-score Reshad Jones touchdown.
The highlights of the day included multiple touchdowns from multiple players on an afternoon when Tom Brady produced his 28th career game with four or more touchdown passes. Defensively the Patriots smelled victory and used a late pass rush explosion to record seven sacks of Matt Moore on a day when the unit held the opposition to 17 points or fewer for the seventh straight contest.
But it wasn't all glory and peak performance. New England saw a number of key players leave with injury including Nate Ebner, Trevor Reilly, LaAdrian Waddle, Kyle Van Noy. Pass protection, at times, was shaky. And the issues with penalties, which had disappeared with a mere three flags over the previous two wins, popped up once again to the tune of seven penalties for 70 lost yards.
Even with the mistakes and the injuries, it was a successful day with a predictable outcome as the Patriots hit the post-Thanksgiving portion that Belichick and Brady place so much importance in.
"We made enough plays. It was a good win. Division game at home," Brady said. "Isn't it fun?
"We talked about getting ahead and playing with a lead. We did that. Made plays when we needed to. The defense made a bunch all day."
"We left a lot of plays on the field. We had some lapses in our play that we need to eliminate," Belichick said in his usual point-of-fact style.
Before moving on to another road trip that begins next weekend in Buffalo, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from the last victory in New England.
Dion Lewis –The undersized back continues to lay claim to the lead back role. With Mike Gillislee a healthy scratch for the third straight week, Lewis had his sixth straight game with 10-plus rushing attempts. He was hitting for chunk gains from the get-go with a 13-yard run on the game's opening drive and a 22-yard run on the home squad's second possession. Lewis finished the day with 15 attempts for 112 yards, the first 100-yard game of his career, leading a running game that churned out a season-high 196 yards for the Patriots overall.
Rob Gronkowski – A week after being used more as a blocker than a playmaker, Gronkowski lit up the stat sheet and the scoreboard with a couple touchdowns and a big day against the Dolphins. The big tight end got things going with a nice 21-yard first down on third down on New England's second drive of the day, which he capped with a 5-yard touchdown. He added a 15-yard touchdown in the third quarter, his 16th career multi-touchdown performance. Overall Gronkowski finished with five catches for 82 yards and the two scores. He also had two pretty enjoyable, and clearly somewhat choreographed, post-TD celebrations. Just don't ask him to talk about them.
Rex Burkhead –Though he didn't have a huge day in terms of yards, Burkhead put the ball in the end zone twice, doubling his touchdown total for the season. He finished off New England's opening drive with a 2-yard touchdown run, his first rushing score of the season. Burkhead then picked up a 1-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Though he did fail to pick up a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, Burkhead finished with 50 yards on 13 rushing attempts and two catches for 3 yards.
Late pass rush – New England hasn't had a great pass rush this season, with just 17 sacks coming in and ranking near the bottom of the NFL in sacks per pass play. That will change after Sunday's performance that included a late flurry of blitzes leading to seven sacks on the game, six in the second half. It came from the usual candidates – two for Trey Flowers and one for Kyle Van Noy – as well as from more unexpected options with Elandon Roberts' first two sacks of his career, one for Eric Lee in his Patriots/NFL debut and even one from cornerback Jonathan "Big Play J" Jones. The defense has played better with a lead overall and that showed with effective late pass rush on Sunday afternoon. It's a nice tool to add to the box late in the year.
Ted Karras/LaAdrian Waddle – Though the two fill-in starters weren't the only linemen to have issues on the day, they were the most notable. Starting in the place of David Andrews once again at center, Karras had an early, errant shotgun snap in the second quarter leading to the Jones touchdown. Karras certainly appeared to be at fault for the heinous play and said as much after the game. Waddle had a false start penalty and was part of a line that simply allowed Brady to be hit way too often (officially, eight times) by a pass rush that's been near the bottom of the NFL all season. Waddle also left the game with a right leg injury in the fourth quarter, forcing Cameron Fleming on at the right tackle spot, with Cameron Wake beating him for the sack on his first snap in protection. After a few impressive weeks in a row, it was a somewhat tough day for Karras and the offensive line as a whole.
Gillette Stadium –The in-stadium entertainment crew in Foxborough prematurely played "Our House" when Burkhead was tackled at goal line in the second quarter. Luckily Burkhead got the touchdown, a reception this time, on the ensuing snap. The PA system then correctly blared the Bon Jovi Foxborough classic.
Injuries -New England has dealt with some major injuries this year -- see Julian Edelman and Dont'a Hightower. They've also dealt with depth issues. Now those depth problems are beginning to pile up. With Matthew Slater, Chris Hogan, Marcus Cannon, David Andrews and Eric Rowe all already dealing with injuries, the Patriots had a bunch of guys get banged up against Miami. Waddle's injury combined with Cannon's issue is concerning. And the combination of injuries at linebacker with Van Noy, Marquis Flowers and Reilly is worth watching in terms of bodies and depth at that spot. Ebner's loss combined with Slater's issues could be a concern in the kicking game.
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