The Patriots won an easy one yesterday, taking the last game of the season 35-14 in Miami. The win gives them a 14-2 regular-season record, an 8-0 road record, and the #1 overall AFC playoff seed. They will rest next weekend and take on the Raiders, Texans, or these same Dolphins at 8:15 pm on January 14, at Gillette Stadium.

The game started out as a laugher. The Patriots dominated time of possession (21:16 to 8:44) en route to a 20-7 halftime lead. And even though Miami drew close at 20-14, the Patriots defense shut them down and the offense scored two touchdowns to pull away late.

Matt Patricia’s Defense Tops NFL Scoring

By holding Miami to just 14 points, the Pats posted the best scoring defense in the entire NFL: 250 points allowed on the year. (Trivia question: name the last year the Patriots gave up the fewest points in the league. Answer below.) And though the pundits have disrespected the Pats D, they are clearly playing their best as the team heads into the playoffs.

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia managed huge in-season changes this year. Historically, linebackers almost always led the team in tackles. But this year, defensive backs hold the top three spots: Logan Ryan (92), Patrick Chung (91), and Devin McCourty (83).

With both Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones traded, Patricia integrated new talent (Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts, Chris Long, Eric Rowe, and even second-year man Trey Flowers). And he moved pieces (e.g. Rob Ninkovich to linebacker), all while building a top-rated defense in the league. A nice job by the Patriots D-coordinator, and a major reason he will receive head-coach consideration.

D Momemtum Turns Tide Against Phins

As for the defense yesterday, Ryan picked off a pass and made some key tackles. But the biggest play of the day was by McCourty, who changed the momentum and the game with his forced fumble early in the fourth quarter. McClellin scooped it up and returned it 69-yards to set up the game-sealing touchdown.

Trey Flowers dominated along the defensive line. His five tackles and two QB hits led the D-linemen, and he forced early throws or QB movement in the pocket on multiple plays. And with linebacker Dont’a Hightower still nursing a knee injury, Elandon Roberts (seven tackles and a QB hit), Rob Ninkovich, and McClellin filled in admirably.

Run/Pass Balance Keeps Dolphins Guessing

On offense, the team used excellent patience and balance to keep Miami guessing. They ran the ball 29 times and passed it 34 times. And play-action passes were especially effective, leading to an easy touchdown by Martellus Bennett on the opening drive as multiple Dolphins defenders overreacted to a run-fake.

Running back LeGarrette Blount led the team with 51 yards, but his running mate, Dion Lewis, was even more impressive: 48 yards on 11 carries. The two make a great combination, with Lewis attacking small creases inside and Blount hammering defenders with is size or bouncing it outside. Blount set a Patriots record with 18 rushing touchdowns, also leading the league in that category. And Miami’s preoccupation with him opened up easy pitch-and-catch short throws.

Edelman’s 77-yard Statement

The receiving star of the day was Julian Edelman. He had eight catches for 151 yards, accounted for five first downs, a two-point conversion, and caught a scintillating 77-yard touchdown. The TD was a short pass where Edelman outran all but one defender – and newcomer Michael Floyd crushed that defender with a huge downfield block.

Floyd’s toughness was also in display on his “catch and plow through six defenders” touchdown. Yep; you could say he’s fitting right in. In fact, he’s picked up the offense so quickly, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he and Tom Brady connect on a back-shoulder throw before the playoffs are done.

Speaking of Brady, he excelled in this game, especially given how much pressure he was under in the second half. His stat line was efficient, if not gaudy: 25 of 33 (75.8%), 276 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 130.4 QB rating. He even added a first-down run on the opening drive, just to remind everyone how fleet of foot he is. Brady ended up second in the NFL with a 112.2 QB rating for the season (Atlanta’s Matt Ryan took the crown).

On special teams, kicker Stephen Gostkowski did miss a field goal; but it was from 52 yards to end the half, so perhaps he can be forgiven. Even with his mid-season hiccups, Gostkowski made 84.4% of his field goals on the year. Also, punter Ryan Allen ended up seventh in the league with a 41.3 yard net average per punt. And in 287 career punts, only one has been returned for a touchdown. (Trivia question #2: can you name the team that returned that punt for a touchdown? Answer below.)

So where does that leave us? The Patriots play their first post-season contest at 8:15pm on January 14. So they should enjoy the show next weekend as the other contenders bash each other to bits while the Patriots get as healthy as they can.

Top of the list for extra rest are Hightower, Bennett, and Brady. All have been nursing injuries, and all are crucial to any post-season run.

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Trey Flowers was a one-man wrecking crew along the defensive line.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Brady set yet another NFL record with a 28-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Not sure how many more records there are for him to break.

Trivia answers:

  1. The Patriots gave up 238 points in the 2003 season to lead the NFL. Note: they also won the Super Bowl that year.
  2. The Philadelphia Eagles blocked a Ryan Allen punt and returned it for a touchdown during the 2015 season.