By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots (12-4) got the bye they were looking for against a frozen Miami Dolphins (7-9) in a 28-0 whitewashing of their rivals in the regular season finale in Foxboro on Sunday.
The Patriots needed help on Sunday to get there and it came from the Indianapolis Colts who beat Houston to open the door for the Patriots to take care of business, which they did beating Miami and getting the number 2 seed for the AFC playoffs.
Here are five observations from Sunday’s game:
Offensive Line Play Rebounds: The offensive line which hadn’t played well the past two games stepped up and played extremely well on Sunday against a stout Miami defense. They kept the pass rush especially the dangerous Cameron Wake off of Tom Brady and the result was he was able to have the time to find open receivers.
Even more impressively, they opened holes in the running game to rush for 167 yards against a Dolphins team that has been in the top 10 all season. We said in the pre-game article that Dante Scarnecchia would light a fire under the unit. Between his and Tom Brady’s comments last week, the point was taken. This was an excellent effort by the offensive line across the board as they controlled the point of attack.
The Defense Rests: The three most banged up members of the Patriots defense were not needed on Sunday as Brandon Spikes played very sparingly, Aqib Talib dressed but didn’t play and Alfonzo Dennard was inactive. All three will be needed in the playoffs if the Patriots are to get to New Orleans.
Dennard and Talib at corner is the team’s best tandem, but without them they mixed and matched and moved the versatile Devin McCourty back to corner and started Kyle Arrington and used Steve Gregory and Pat Chung at safety. While far from optimal, on Sunday against a less than overpowering Miami offense, they got the job done.
The bye week guarantees at least another week of rest for those injured starters and their status will bear watching when the practices begin in earnest next week.
Ninkovich Injury Looked Serious: Until the exact results are known, we won’t know if Rob Ninkovich will be available for the playoff opener if at all. But with how gingerly and slow he walked off the field, it seemed pretty serious. Hip injuries can be very painful affairs as evidenced by Talib’s laborious effort last week. This was the only downer on what was a pretty impressive regular season finale.
In potentially losing Ninkovich, they lose one of their most versatile and solid defenders. Ninkovich is excellent at setting the edge in the running game and has become a good pass rusher. Arguably, he’s been the most clutch player on the defense as he saves his best plays for big moments in games.
But all is not lost as the team does have excellent depth at the DE position. Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott and Justin Francis all have played very well when called upon this season and yesterday’s game was good evidence of that. Francis (three) and Scott accounted for four of the Patriots seven sacks yesterday.
Francis was running roughshod over Dolphins backup RT Nate Garner all game. All three of them will be needed regardless of whether or not Ninkovich can go in the playoffs. However, they will all see an increase in snaps if he can’t.
He’s Back: Rob Gronkowski returned to play on Sunday and although limited to just over 20 snaps, he shook off the rust and contributed in a big way. While clearly not 100 percent and favoring his injured arm, Gronkowski still blocked well while in the game and added that extra dimension in the passing game.
With both he and Aaron Hernandez in the lineup, he opened up the lanes for both Hernandez and Wes Welker to roam underneath. Both responded with solid games catching the ball. Gronkowski caught two passes, the first a 19 yard strike from Tom Brady which set up the first Patriots score and the second a 23 yard touchdown down the seam which sealed the deal in the fourth quarter.
And nothing warms the heart of Patriots fans more than to see the “Gronk spike” in the end zone. While Welker remains the Patriots primary focus in the passing game, Gronkowski is the guy who sets the table by clearing out a lot of space.
Little Big Men Step Up: Welker and Danny Woodhead were the big parts of the offense on Sunday as each stepped up their games in the rout of the Dolphins.
Welker, as he’s done against his former team, tortured the Dolphins underneath to the tune of 8 catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Welker opened the scoring when he split out wide and looped back underneath for a wide open 9 yard touchdown pass from Brady that was far too easy and wide open.
Woodhead caught 5 passes for 79 yards as the Patriots utilized a screen game against an aggressive Dolphins defense to perfection. Woodhead also carried the ball three times for 18 yards. He like Ninkovich steps it up a notch in the biggest of games.
Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 Podcast at blog talk radio as the writers from PatsFans.com discuss the latest on Patriots news as well as Dolphins post-game wrap and possible playoff opponents preview, Wednesday at 12 noon.