Patriots

Patriots finish in style with 38-7 rout of Dolphins

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Patriots finish in style with 38-7 rout of Dolphins

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- With nothing to play for except pride, the Patriots made the last in a series of resounding regular-season statements Sunday.

Even with coach Bill Belichick substituting liberally -- and most of New England hoping for nothing more than an injury-free afternoon -- the Pats thrashed the Dolphins, 38-7, putting an emphatic exclamation point on one of the most surprising, and satisfying, regular seasons in franchise history.

Other Patriots teams have finished with the same 14-2 record as this one, but none of those teams went into the year with expectations as low as they were for these Pats. The general feeling was that 10 wins might be their upper limit, and missing the playoffs entirely was thought to be a distinct possibility.

But New England rebuilt itself on offense after the Randy Moss trade, matured on defense, and got better as the year went along. The Pats won their last eight games, scoring 31 or more points in all of them, as they finished with the top overall seed.

The Patriots last lost on Nov. 7, a 34-14 whipping at the hands of the Browns, and after Sunday's game Vince Wilfork pointed to that day as the turning point of the season.

"The road wasn't smooth all the way and I think after the Cleveland game, it was really a gut check," said Wilfork. "Reality set in . . .

"I think from that point on, guys really buckled down and started to understand, 'Hey, anybody is beatable' . . . I think from that point on, guys just really hated the taste of losing."

That they did. From that day forward the Pats were undefeated, outscored their opponents 299-125, and secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. And take note, defense-wins-championship crowd: New England has held the opposition to single-digit scoring in four of the last five games.

Sunday was more of the same. The onslaught was kickstarted on the first drive of the game by Devin McCourty, whose seventh interception of the year gave the Patriots possession on the Miami 47. Six plays later, on a third-and-two from the Dolphins 13, Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski in the left flat of the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

Danny Woodhead -- who had a key 19-yard run during the first scoring drive -- committed the first Patriots turnover in seven games on the Pats' next drive, fumbling (and suffering a concussion that knocked him out of the game) on the New England 34. But the Pats' defense stiffened, and the Dolphins came away empty when Dan Carpenter missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt.

That, as it turned out, was Miami's last gasp. It took the Pats only four plays -- a seven-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis; a 22-yard completion from Brady to Julian Edelman; a 40-yard completion from Brady to Edelman, and a one-yard scoring run by Green-Ellis -- to increase their lead to 14-0, and the rout was on.

It looked as if Brady's day was done when he was replaced by Brian Hoyer midway throught the second quarter, but all it took was a pair of incompletions to prompt coach Bill Belichick to reinsert his All-Pro quarterback. The move paid no dividends on that drive -- Brady threw an incompletion of his own on third-and-10 and the Pats were forced to punt -- but it did on the next one, as he directed a 49-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard Shayne Graham field goal, making it 17-0.

Then it was Edelman's turn to grab the spotlight. Dolphins punter Brandon Fields outkicked his coverage with a 61-yard drive that forced Edelman back to his 6-yard line.Edelman caught the punt, avoided a tackle at the point of reception, snaked his way through two openings, broke to the left and raced 94 yards to the end zone, giving the Patriots a 24-0 lead.

It was the longest punt return in Patriots history, and it made up for the TD Edelman lost on a punt return three weeks ago in Chicago, which was negated by a penalty.

Brady came back out for the first drive of the third quarter and marched the Pats 78 yards in 7 plays -- keys: a 26-yard completion to Gronkowski, which moved the ball to the Pats' 43, and a 40-yard catch-and-run by Brandon Tate that got it to the Miami 10 -- and make the score 31-0. Brady hit Alge Crumpler with a 10-yard pass for the touchdown.

Hoyer replaced Brady for good on the next series, which began with 10:15 to go in the third quarter, but you wouldn't have known it. He drove the Pats 85 yards in 8 plays, capping the drive with his first NFL touchdown pass: A 42-yard bomb down the left sideline to Tate, who made a spectacular leaping catch that increased New England's lead to 38-0.

"That was a play Brandon and I talked about before, and we just kind of had a good feeling about it going into the game," said Hoyer. "He made a tremendous catch . . . he really went out and got it."

"That was real good for Hoyer's first one," said Tate.

All that was left was Green-Ellis' quest for a 1,000-yard rushing season, which he accomplished with a 10-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter. That got him to 1,008 for the year, earned him a big hug from Belichick when he reached the sideline, and ended his day.

The Dolphins finally broke through with 2:11 left on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Thigpen to Davone Bess.

Now the Pats take the next week off as they wait to find out the identity of their playoff opponent, but if you think they'll spend that week resting on their laurels -- or making "I think we're going to win it this year" proclamations, as Jets coach Rex Ryan did Sunday after his team's victory over Buffalo -- well, you know the Patriots better than that.

"After watching film of Sunday's game," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, "I'm sure Coach Belichick will knock us right back down."

"Bill will obviously keep us focused, keep us humble, keep us striving to play better week in and week out," said safety James Sanders.

But even so, a little bit of pride -- just a little -- was evident Sunday.

"The guys on this team, we know the kind of team we have here and what we're capable of doing," said Sanders.

"Fourteen-and-two," said Mayo's fellow linebacker, Rob Ninkovich. "That's not bad."

No, it's not.

Art Martone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com.

Patriots' Gillislee a healthy scratch for second straight game

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Patriots' Gillislee a healthy scratch for second straight game

For the second straight week, Mike Gillislee is a healthy scratch as the Patriots prepare to play the Raiders in Mexico City. Because he doesn't contribute in the kicking game, and because he doesn't have as much situational versatility as Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead, Gillislee finds himself on the outside looking in. 

Does this mean that if the Patriots running back group remains healthy for the rest of the year that Gillilslee will continue to sit? Not necessarily. That will change from week to week based on the matchup and the overall health of the rest of the roster. But for right now, he's not viewed as an essential game-day option the same way Lewis, Burkhead, James White and Brandon Bolden are. 

The Patriots will have seven linemen active, as they do most weeks, but this week they're without two of their starters -- Marcus Cannon and David Andrews -- so Cole Croston and Cameron Fleming will be in uniform against the Raiders. Both players are candidates to be healthy scratches when other linemen are healthy. For Croston, it will be his NFL debut. He's been on the active roster all season but has been a weekly scratch. 

Malcom Brown (ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin) practiced all week but will continue to miss time with their respective injuries. Matthew Slater (hamstring) left last week's game against the Broncos and will need more time to let his ailment heal. He missed the first four weeks of the season and most of training camp with a hamstring issue. 

Cassius Marsh, who was inactive last werek due to a shoulder injury, will be back in uniform to give the Patriots some depth on the edge. They need it; after Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy and Deatrich Wise, they were wafer thin at that spot in Denver. 

RB Mike Gillislee
C David Andrews
OL Marcus Cannon
WR Chris Hogan
WR Matthew Slater
DL Malcom Brown
CB Eric Rowe

With Andrews out, who's next man up for the Patriots at center?

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With Andrews out, who's next man up for the Patriots at center?

Continuity along the offensive line was one of the reasons the Patriots were able to have the season they had in 2016. They tossed aside the early-season experiementation that Bill Belichick favored at times in order to establish a starting five that could be relied upon, if healthy, start to finish. 

They attacked 2017 with the same approach, but because of injury the consistency simply has not been the same. Both starting tackles, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon, have missed time injured this season, and Cannon will sit out again on Sunday as he continues to deal with an ankle injury. 

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The interior of the line has remained largely in place until this week when center David Andrews came down with an illness, missed two practices, and was ruled out. 

On a line where familiarity is key, where the center is the one making the calls, the one in constant communication with Tom Brady, what now?

The Patriots will likely turn to second-year man Ted Karras, who has the ability to play both guard spots and also backed up Andrews for the vast majority of training camp. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder was released at the end of camp, quickly signed to the Patriots practice squad, and then he re-signed to the active roster in Week 1 when Malcolm Mitchell was placed on injured reserve.

Karras, drafted in the sixth round in 2016 out of Illinois, was named a practice player of the week earlier this year and he earned some praise from Belichick before the Patriots took off for Mexico City.

"Ted works hard," Belichick said. "He loves football. He gets there early, stays late."

Belichick noted that Karras (nine snaps, all against the Broncos) hasn't played much this season, but he did see plenty of work early last season when he filled in for an injured Shaq Mason. He was the Week 1 starter at right guard in a win ver the Cardinals and he played 41 snaps in Week 2 against the Dolphins. 

The Patriots offensive line could also potentially turn to Joe Thuney at center. He's practiced there before and got some experience at the position during his time at NC State. This seems like the less likely move since the Patriots would then have to deal with two new players at different spots -- center and left guard (whether the player replacing Thuney would be Karras or rookie Cole Croston) -- which could have a domino effect on the rest of the line. 

However the Patriots choose to handle it, they'll face an interesting test south of the border. The Raiders feature a pair of talented pass-rushers in Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack, who Belichick says play all over the offensive line, yet Oakland is tied for last in the league in sacks. 

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