Curran: Five thoughts from Patriots 38, Dolphins 7


Curran: Five thoughts from Patriots 38, Dolphins 7

By Tom E. Curran

FOXBORO - It was an exclamation point on a season that nobody could have predicted. A 38-7 win chock full o'milestones that put the Patriots at 14-2 and made Bill Belichick the first coach in NFL history to have 14 wins in four different seasons. Enclosed herein, find The 5:1. MORE GRONK, PLEASEThe Patriots' tight ends as a group finished this season with 93 catches for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns. That's three seasons of work for the tight ends in years past. Putting the exclamation point Sunday on the tight ends' performance from 2010 was Rob Gronkowski. He had 6 catches for 102 yards and a touchdown. It was his 10th touchdown catch of the season, setting a Patriots' rookie record for receiving scores. "That's cool," Gronkowski smiled uncomfortably. "Records really don't matter but at the same time, it's cool. I just need to stay focused and hopefully great things keep happening." Gronkowski's rookie season didn't come without bumps. At Cleveland, he had two drops and a fumble at the goal line just before halftime that killed the modest momentum the Patriots were trying to build. But he bounced back tremendously from that game."I learned a lot from it," Gronkowski acknowledged. "That's whyI need to take the positive out of a game like that. You gotta look at thepositive and keep on moving forward." Alge Crumpler had a touchdown in his second straight game. Aaron Hernandez didn't play for the second straight game with a hip injury. Hefinished the regular season with 45 catches for 563 yards and six scores. 2. WOODY SHOULD BE OKIn the locker room after the game, a Patriots official approached Danny Woodhead about talking to the media. "I can talk," he said. "I'm fine to talk." It was decided that the Patriots' third down back would stay quiet, but the fact he was ready to talk is a good sign after he took a solid blow to the head in the first quarter and left the game with a head injury. Those two words are usually code for concussion and Woodhead was seen on the sidelines getting checked out by team doctors for what appeared to be that. The fact he didn't return was an indication he'd been ruled out although his return was officially deemed "questionable." When asked about Woodhead's availability in the postgame, Belichick demurred and said that "it didn't come to" Woodhead having to return. The bye week is a boon for all the Patriots nursing bumps and bruises and Woodhead joins that group. 3. McCOURTY'S DONE ALL HE CANRookie cornerback Devin McCourty came up with his seventh interception of the season in the first quarter, tying him for the league lead with former Patriot Asante Samuel of the Eagles. It's been a remarkable season for McCourty, taken 27th in the first round of April's draft and selected for the Pro Bowl earlier this week. He's a tremendous combination of smarts and athleticism, said fellow corner Kyle Arrington. "My first impression meeting him was - smart. He's very intuitive. He just gets it. To come in as a rookie, he's playing like a veteran. It doesn't take long for him to get it down and it shows. As a rookie, at the beginning of the year, he made some mistakes like all of them do, but he learned. And he's playing like he's in little league out there. Having fun and playing at a high level." Whether or not McCourty winsthe AP's Defensive Rookie of the Year award is now up for debate. What was a layup for Detroits' Ndamukong Suh now seems a two-horse race. Despite all he's done, McCourty sees himself as merely a foot soldier. "I am a rookie and I will find outwhen we come back and Coach Belichick tells us what the game plan is (for the rest of this week.)"The final bit of praise for McCourty (and for Arrington) came from Dolphins coach Tony Sparano. "The thing I have been most impressed with when watchign their tape has been their corners. In other words, never mind Tom Brady and the offense, that's where they have made great improvement. Those two guys go out there and compete at a pretty high level. I've seen great growth out of them since the last time we played."4. FISH FLOUNDERINGSparano's job may be in jeopardy as the Dolphins wrapped a 7-9 season. Asked what he told his team in the locker room, Sparano said, "I told them you never want to be in this position again. I never, ever, ever do . . . We shouldn't forget what just happened to us out there. Not a good place to be. We did it to ourselves coming into this game, having nothing to play for other than the pride thing . . . You don't want to be in that position. It's not what we aspire to be." Wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who at one point was openly irritated about misfires from starting quarterback Chad Henne, was more pointed. "We're not close to where we need to be," he lamented. "Receivers and quarterbacks, we're on several different pages. You can't have that. We just didn't get it done this week or this whole year." Asked about his apparent disgust with Henne, Marshall said, "Next question." As for whether he believes changes are coming, Marshall said (smartly), "My job is to catch balls. When I try to get into that business side of things, then I'm on my way out of the league. I don't think I'm in a position to be in the front office. I don't know if I'm that smart."5. CLEARING THE BENCHBill Belichick stressed the importance of getting as many players as he could some reps on Sunday, saying, "It will be a couple of weeks before we play again, so the guys that played got a good opportunity and some other people that hadn't played as much got a chance to play." Among those players was defensive lineman Myron Pryor who'd been sidelined with a back injury. He got several snaps and made a nice stop at the line of scrimmage in the first half. Ryan Wendell, in at right guard once again for Dan Connolly, got some snaps as did little-used linemen Mark Levoir, Quinn Ojinnaka and Rich Ohrnberger. Sebastian Vollmer took snaps at left tackle after Matt Light sat down and rookie Taylor Price - who'd been inactive all season - had three catches for 41 yards.

Tom E. Curran can be reached at Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Patriots missing Brady, Gronkowski from start of Wednesday's practice


Patriots missing Brady, Gronkowski from start of Wednesday's practice

FOXBORO -- Tough day in terms attendance at Patriots practice. 

Several starters were missing from the start of the session, including two of the team's most important players, that took place in the rain on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. 

Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Hogan, Marcus Cannon, David Andrews and Patrick Chung were all absent from the start of the practice. 

Hogan (shoulder), Cannon (ankle) and Andrews (illness) were all unable to play against the Raiders last weekend. Chung left the Raiders game briefly with an undiclosed injury but returned later in the game and met with media afterward. The reasons for Brady and Gronkowski's absences are unknown. 

Matthew Slater (hamstring) did not play last weekend in Mexico City, but he was back on the practice field. Newly-acquired defensive lineman Eric Lee -- who took Cassius Marsh's spot on the 53-man roster -- was also present. 

It appeared as though new practice squad return man Bernard Reedy was on the field as well. P-squad defensive lineman Mike Purcell was missing from the session so it looks like he was released in order to make room. 

Finally, Malcolm Mitchell was not on the field for Wednesday's workout. He's eligible to come off of injured reserve and begin practicing, as is defensive lineman Vincent Valentine, but both remain out. 


Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs


Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs

Third quarter, Patriots versus the Raiders. Elandon Roberts lined up in the middle of the defense, the only off-the-ball linebacker on this second-down play from midfield. Roberts looked intently into the Oakland backfield, trying to decipher where quarterback Derek Carr would go on the play. 

At the snap of the ball, Carr released his running back, Jalen Richard, to the right of the formation. With the Pats playing man-to-man, Roberts had to hurry to cover the quicker, faster Richard. The second-year pro also had to skirt around a slight pick by wide receiver Amari Cooper. Successfully navigating that landmine, Roberts went stride for stride with Richard. 


Carr still identified that as the matchup to exploit but the throw clanged off the back of Roberts’ helmet. Not the result Carr was looking for, and despite the ugliness at the tail end of the play, yet another sign of the Pats improving in an area that early in the season had been an issue.

“It's certainly a good observation,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “That's part of the process as you go through the year and understanding your opponents and what they like to do from the standpoint of plays. So certainly on that particular play where it might be a situation where they're trying to pick him or get him in a bad coverage matchup and he did a good job of getting through it.”

Covering running backs coming out of the backfield is not something that the Pats have been particularly adept at over the years. Roberts, especially, seemed lost in those spots in his rookie season. But with Dont’a Hightower lost for the season, the Pats have had to spread out some of those responsibilities and Roberts, 23, the University of Houston product, is growing in that department.

“[He's] someone that works really hard to know where his help is in both situations whether it's leveraging a run play or leveraging a pass play,” complimented Patricia. “He's really trying to learn and understand that at a much higher level which he's really trying to do a good job of.”

It wasn’t just that play and it wasn’t just Roberts. In the opening quarter, Kyle Van Noy swarmed Richard in the right flat, limiting the shifty back to just four yards. Later, Trevor Reilly quickly snuffed out a swing pass to Richard. Bill Belichick - like Patricia - has taken notice.

“I think that’s a very competitive group of players on our team,” Belichick said. “So again, just trying to work on our fundamentals, and individual techniques, and try to work each week on our opponent, and their tendencies, the way they do things to match it up against. Those guys work hard at both of those areas.”

That work will need to continue. The Pats will get two doses in three weeks of Miami running back Damien Williams, who in limited snaps has made an impact as a receiver. There’s also Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, the skilled trio of Bilal Powell, Matt Forte and Elijah McGuire for the Jets and LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. In other words, no resting our recent success.

“We're obviously going to look at the other aspect of it too and say, 'Well this is where we think we need to improve and this is where we think we need to make sure that we have this tightened up because this showed up,'" Patricia said. "Whether or not – it could be a bad situation for us whether it's just a – maybe it's a particular look that offense gives us or a particular defensive call.

That no doubt earns a nod from the head coach, who never believes what’s good is good enough.