The New England Patriots (9-3) beat the Miami Dolphins (5-7) 23-16 on Sunday in Miami on a day when the Patriots offense and Tom Brady were not playing their best but were good enough to secure the AFC East crown for the fourth straight time and the 10th time in 12 years.

The Patriots offense did close the deal in the fourth quarter with a 16 play 80 yard drive that sucked 7:18 off the play clock and any realistic chance that the Dolphins had on winning the game.

Crunch Time Running Game- This was the four minute offense that the team has been searching for and they did it surprisingly mainly on the ground where in the first half they treated the running game as a communicable disease.

The game plan, which we spoke about last week was to throw the ball outside the numbers, wear down the Dolphins defense and close the deal with the running game. While the results were ultimately what they were looking for and the team came away with a win, they perhaps made things harder on themselves than they needed to.

On their first 19 first down plays from the beginning of the game into the second half, the Patriots passed on 16 of those plays. That type of trend will bring the pass rush on the quarterback with ears pinned back. It is not surprising therefore to know that Tom Brady was sacked four times.

But the running game was the main focus of the final drive and to be fair, maybe they did wear down Miami as their best defender, Cameron Wake spent the final drive on the bench. And the running game took it to Miami running the ball mainly right up the gut into the middle of the Dolphins defense. In the South Florida heat, it was the Dolphins who wilted in the fourth quarter.

Ridley Passes 1K- Stevan Ridley who passed the 1000 yard mark for the first time, was the workhorse carrying 10 times for 46 on the final drive. It was another big step up for the Patriots offensive line that despite playing without G Logan Mankins and losing G Dan Connolly to injury was able to run the ball effectively against a top 10 run defense at crunch time.

Miami showed it wasn’t yet ready to be counted as a legitimate contender for the Patriots reign; they were plagued by too many mistakes. A muffed punt snap led to a short 12-yard drive for the first Patriots score. A bad roughing the kicker penalty led to a fresh set of downs and another score. The Dolphins fumbled four times but lost only one.

Patriots Defense Shows Up- Ryan Tannehill completed less than 50 percent of his throws (13-29 for 186 yards) and missed deep throws where he had receivers open. For the Patriots defense, it was mostly a very good performance. While they held Miami to only one touchdown and under 200 yards passing, giving up two big plays at the end of regulation, each for 28 yards has to be more than a little disconcerting. Especially with big games coming up with Houston and San Francisco, that is not the way to close out games.

However, the defense did an outstanding job on third downs,limiting the Dolphins to just 3 for 14 on third downs and Miami’s 277 yards of total offense was also a positive sign. that the defense is improving.  Perhaps the biggest play of the day came deep in the Patriots red zone when Jerod Mayo came on a delayed blitz on third and four from the seven yard line and buried Tannehill with an eight yard sack that forced Miami to settle for a field goal.

Another bright spot had to be the play of Kyle Arrington in the slot, Arrington who’s been a lightning rod for criticism this season, held Davone Bess to just a single catch on the day. The Dolphins gained 101 yards on the ground but averaged only 3.7 yards per carry which is good work for the front seven.

Great Scott- Trevor Scott filling in for injured Chandler Jones and suspended Jermaine Cunningham did an excellent job getting two sacks and causing a fumble that was recovered by Vince Wilfork.

The veteran, who was brought in this year, has played sparingly until Jones’ injury and has stepped up since. It was the 33rd turnover for the Patriots this year and led to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.

Welker Continues Torching Fins- Wes Welker had another huge game against his former team, after burning them badly twice last year, Miami showed it still has no answer for Welker. He caught 12 passes for 103 yards including a touchdown in the red zone that seemed ridiculously too easy.

Aaron Hernandez also had a big game with 8 catches for 97 yards. But wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman were each held to one catch although Lloyd’s came at crunch time as it prolonged the Patriots final drive. Edelman injured his foot in the fourth quarter and was seen in a walking boot after the game.

So the Patriots with the win now share the 2nd best record in the conference with the Ravens and Broncos and have the Houston Texans with the conference’s best record coming into Foxboro this week. That should provide a better look at where the team is heading into the post-season.

Check back later this week as we’ll bring you the key matchups between the two teams as they get closer to the game.

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