The Patriots shut the door on the victory on Miami last Sunday afternoon thanks to an impressive final scoring drive – a display of the team's four-minute offense – that took 7:18 seconds off the clock as the 16-play, 77-yard march led to Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a two-score lead for the visitors.
That drive saw Stevan Ridley churn out 10 carries for 46 yards while Shane Vereen chipped in with an 8-yard run of his own. Tom Brady helped out the effort with three short completions, all for first downs. It was an impressive way to essentially ensure victory.
But the New England defense did a good job giving the offense a chance to make that drive, and co-captain Jerod Mayo was a big part of that effort.
On Miami's possession before that long New England drive, the Dolphins actually had a 12-play, 65-yard march of its own. Ryan Tannehill led the home team to a first-and-10 inside the red zone at the Patriots 13 with the Dolphins trailing 20-10.
Without a couple key plays from Mayo, the Patriots easily could have been clinging to just a three-point lead when New England got the ball back midway through the fourth quarter rather than the seven-point advantage that ensued.
On first down, Tannehill hit versatile tight end/H-back Charles Clay with a play-action screen pass to the left. Mayo read the play well, weaved his way through a potential block from backup left tackle Jonathan Martin (the rookie swapped over from the right side when Jake Long left to injury) and tackled Clay for a 6-yard gain. Though the play picked up 6 yards, and Brandon Spikes was also in the area, there is a decent chance that had Mayo not wrapped Clay up around the legs that the pass catcher may have ended up in the end zone for the touchdown. But not on Mayo's watch.
A week earlier in a win over the Seahawks, Clay turned a one-on-one matchup with a Seattle linebacker into touchdown. But the sure-tackling Mayo made sure that wasn't going to happen this time around.
On the next snap Tannehill threw for Hartline in the back of the end zone, as the receiver beat Aqib Talib but the throw took him out of the field of play.
Facing third-and-four from the Patriots 7 with 8:53 to play, Tannehill dropped back again and was clearly looking for the end zone on his left side. Running back Daniel Thomas was lined up next to Tannhill, who's in the shotgun. On the snap the running back stepped up and to his left to help Martin block Trevor Scott, who's lined up in a two-point stance on the end of the line for the Patriots defense. At the snap, Mayo did a little delay step – either reading the back's actions or disguising his rush -- before blitzing inside of the tackle, an open B gap that led him quickly to Tannehill in the backfield, where he dropped the rookie passer for the 8-yard sack. With the left guard blocking down on Vince Wilfork while Martin and Thomas dealt with Scott on the outside, Mayo had the easy line to the big play.
Afterwards, Mayo said that while he practices that blitz all the time that is rare to get the call in the game when he actually has a chance to get to the quarterback.
One thing that certainly hasn't been rare this season, is Mayo making key plays for the Patriots. The former Pro Bowler and All-Pro – who's leading the AFC fan voting for the Pro Bowl at linebacker this year – is in the midst of arguably his best season. Beyond leading the team with nearly 150 tackles, he's made far more big plays than in the past. Through 12 games he has three sacks, three QB hits, an interception, two passes defensed, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery – dare we say Ray Lewis-type numbers – as he reasserts himself as a key force on the New England front.
Two such big plays came late in Sunday's win in Miami and set up the stage for the offense to run out the clock on the victory. Had Mayo not made his two key defensive stops, the Dolphins very well may have ended up in the end zone to pull within 20-17. If that happens there is more pressure for the Patriots to score a touchdown rather than a field goal on their final drive. And Miami's quick score after the Gostkowski field goal could have come in an entirely different light.
Make no mistake, it was a huge team victory for the Patriots in Miami on Sunday. It earned the team another set of hats and t-shirts for it as New England clinched its fourth straight division title.
It's the kind of tight division game that brought key plays in all three phases of the game. It's the perfect game for a second watching. And in doing that, Mayo's big plays jumped off the film as ideal candidates for this week's edition of Take Two-sday!