Phil Perry's Report Card: Pedal to the metal pays off
FIRST . . . SOME SELF-EVALUATION
Before we get into the last round of regular-season grades for the 2016 Patriots, it's time to do a little self-evaluation. Time to take the red pen to my own work, so to speak -- specifically as it relates to how I believed the Patriots would approach their regular-season finale.
It ain't pretty.
I was convinced that homefield advantage would not be what allowed the Patriots to make the Super Bowl this season. They were too good, too healthy, their competition too weak. They've won Lombardi Trophies before without the No. 1 seed, and the prospect of facing Matt McGloin or Connor Cook in Oakland for the AFC title game, I thought, should not give the Patriots pause.
Rest your guys, I said.
Not everyone, mind you. That would have been mathematically impossible, as Bill Belichick pointed out last week. But Julian Edelman, who'd been targeted 75 times between Weeks 11 and 16? Dont'a Hightower, who's been dealing with a knee injury for most of the year? Martellus Bennett, the team's banged-up, clear-cut top-of-the-depth-chart tight end? Tom Brady, the 39-year-old MVP candidate? I made the argument just about everywhere -- online, radio, Quick Slants the Podcast, Football Fix, you name it -- that all of them could have seen a smaller-than-normal workload. The risk wasn't worth homefield, I insisted.
The Patriots couldn't have disagreed with me more. Not only did those players play, but Brady took off running for a first down on the game's first drive, exposing himself to what was very nearly a knockout blow. Edelman saw targets over the middle of the field and returned punts with reckless abandon.
No rest. No bubble wrap.
The weird thing is, after the Patriots locked up the No. 1 seed and seemingly avoided key injuries, I still feel the same way.
I still think the Patriots lost in the AFC title game last year because they were in shambles physically, not because they played it safe in Miami in Week 17 and ended up in Denver. It was health that did the Patriots in back then, not the decibel level at Mile High.
But the scoreboard is the scoreboard. The Patriots played their guys. And if I'm going to score my imperfect work on the "Play 'Em or Sit 'Em" debate, I need to be honest about it.
On to this week's Report Card . . .
The Patriots weren't always able to finish in the end zone. They had two long first-half drives end in field goals, and they stalled with back-to-back drives in the third quarter that ended with punts. But overall, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels deployed a balanced plan that got up on the Dolphins early and forced Dolphins backup quarterback Matt Moore to try to play catch-up. In a turnover-free performance, the Patriots threw it 34 times and ran it 29, and as a result of their multi-faceted attack, they were able to use the play-action passing game to their benefit, completing all three passes to tight end Martellus Bennett using play-fakes. Tom Brady hit seven different receivers in the passing game and added to his MVP resume with a rating of 130.4, taking advantage of a Dolphins defense that was without a starting corner, a starting linebacker and has lost both starting safeties to injured reserve.
Brady hit on his first six throws and scrambled to convert on a third down play in the game's opening moments, issuing the kind of shots that had the Dolphins defense stumbling for the majority of the first half. He wasn't perfect -- in the second quarter it looked as though he might've had Chris Hogan for a touchdown but threw an incompletion Edelman's way instead -- but he was close, completing 25 of 33 attempts for 276 yards and three scores. He deserves his share of credit for the chemistry he showed with new wideout Michael Floyd after just a couple of weeks of work; usually it takes a little more time to gain Brady's trust. The two shared a bear hug in the visitor's locker room after the game in which Floyd caught three passes for 36 yards and a score.
RUNNING BACK: B+
It was another strong day for Dion Lewis, who made defenders miss in tight spaces and picked up 48 yards on 11 carries. He also turned a completion that probably should've gone for a loss into a four-yard gain by using his agility. Though he caught just two passes on the afternoon, he helped Edelman pick up a 14-yard gain by taking on 335-pound defensive tackle Jordan Phillips in pass protection. LeGarrette Blount had 51 yards on 14 carries and picked up his franchise-record 18th score near the goal line. He also helped open things up for Bennett's red-zone score. He's seen so many carries that have ended with him plunging into the end zone this season that Brady's play-fake to Blount sucked up Dolphins defenders and left Bennett wide open. Blount's facemask penalty on Ndamukong Suh in the fourth quarter may earn him a letter from the league and dropped this group's grade a bit.
Edelman's 77-yard score stands out as the longest reception in his career, but part of what made it so impressive was what happened immediately before he galloped for the end zone. On the previous play, a second-and-14 from the Patriots 16-yard line, he took a hard shot on a seven-yard gain. Moments later, he had the presence of mind to sit down in an opening in the Dolphins secondary that was created as a result of a rare Miami blitz. After getting a crushing block from Floyd, he was gone. Floyd's physicality showed up in other areas as well, including his touchdown, when he plowed through four defenders, and on strong runs from Lewis and Blount, during which he made strong blocks. He's fitting right in with this hard-nosed receiving corps, it seems, and at 6-foot-3, 220-pounds, he provides a size mismatch that they haven't had in that group. Only a couple of obvious miscues from this position group: Edelman's unsportsmanlike penalty after a head-butt, and Floyd's mental hiccup of not understanding where to line up early in the first quarter, costing the Patriots a timeout.
TIGHT END: B+
We detailed Bennett's play-action score above -- he's looking like a real red-zone problem for opposing defenses after two close-quarters touchdowns in as many weeks -- but he looked strong on his two additional catches. He took advantage of a stretch-run action pass that got him up the sideline for 20 yards. The Patriots also ran a power-run action play-fake, with Joe Thuney pulling, to open up the middle of the field early in the first quarter for his first grab of the game. Bennett looks like he's moving better than he has in months. James Develin saw just 17 snaps after seeing heavy workloads in Weeks 15 and 16, but he was a presence on the goal line, helping lead the way for Blount's score, and helping sell the fake on Bennett's touchdown as well.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
Against a defensive line unit that includes Suh and a resurgent Cameron Wake, the Patriots offensive line more than held its own. Nate Solder had one of his best games of the season with a clean sheet in pass-protection. Marcus Cannon was once again a force in the running game on the right side, though he took a hard shot to his right arm on Blount's touchdown and was not on the field for New England's final drive. Shaq Mason was not out there at the end, either, so it could have simply been a move to get Cameron Fleming (and Ted Karras) some work, but we'll keep a close eye on Cannon's upcoming practice participation. He's become a vital piece to this unit. What a difference a year makes. Allowing just one hit and no quarterback sacks to go along with a 4.1 yards-per-rush average, Dante Scarnecchia's group has almost nothing to hang its head about after Sunday's performance. Thuney had a hard time with Phillips at points, getting caught for a hold. Fleming and Mason were also flagged for penalties.
When I asked Belichick earlier this season if there was anything his defense could do to show more aggressiveness, his answer was essentially, we're trying. Since then, as players have become more comfortable in their roles, and as the coaching staff has become more comfortable with the capabilities of its personnel, this unit has looked more aggressive, and the turnover numbers have piled up. After creating just two between Weeks 4 and 11, they finished the season with a stretch of 14 turnovers between Weeks 12 and 17. Logan Ryan's pick and Devin McCourty's strip were key plays in keeping Adam Gase's offense down on New Year's Day, but all three levels of the defense had a say in the performance that helped them seal up the league's defensive scoring title with an average of just 15.6 points allowed per game.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A-
We'll have more on him later this week, but there's a reason that veterans on the Patriots defense consider Trey Flowers to be one of their best players. He showed it on Miami's first drive of the game, stuffing two runs and then smothering Moore's on his first drop-back of the game -- his first of two quarterback hits on the day. He single-handedly ruined the drive. Flowers also set a strong edge, helping Elandon Roberts wipe out a Jakeem Grant run, and he stuffed another run on his own. In just 29 snaps, it might have been his best game of the season. The Patriots got other contributions from this unit as Alan Branch batted another pass and swallowed up a pair of runs himself. Rob Ninkovich helped force a key third-down incompletion in the third quarter when he got his hand on Moore's throwing shoulder. Chris Long had a hit himself and hurried Moore three times, adding to his list of highlights from a quietly-strong season. And though Vincent Valentine got another start in place of Malcom Brown, it was Brown who saw more snaps, playing relatively well after being benched for most of the prior week's matchup with the Jets. To hold Jay Ajayi to 59 yards on 16 carries is no small feat for this unit.
Helping the front stonewall Ajayi was linebacker coach Brian Flores' unit. Rookie Elandon Roberts was particularly impressive. He's now played in 57 snaps over the last two weeks after getting just 16 total between Weeks 12 and 15. Against the run, he's a force, and he finished with seven tackles, including three run-stuffs. Dont'a Hightower had some issues tackling Ajayi on an eight-yard run and Jarvis Landry on Landry's touchdown before the end of the half, but he recorded a quarterback hit and was the communicator in the middle for 41 snaps as the pieces around him changed. Kyle Van Noy had a difficult time in coverage, it seemed. Though Belichick took the blame for a bad play-call on the 25-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills -- when Stills ran by Van Noy down the middle of the field -- that wasn't the only time someone was running by Van Noy in coverage. Had it not been for Flowers' first hit of the game, Van Noy may have been hit for a score earlier. Running back Damien Williams had him beaten down the right sideline. Shea McClellin checked in with a good-awareness play late, scooping up the fumble caused by Devin McCourty and returning it all the way back to the Miami 18. That set up a short touchdown drive to effectively end the game.
Ryan's interception showed his good hands right in front of the Patriots sidelines. It was a weak throw from Moore, who was on the move to get away from Jabaal Sheard, but credit Ryan for converting on the underthrown pass. McCourty's strip wasn't the only fumble caused by Patriots defensive backs: Malcolm Butler punched one out on Landry, but Landry somehow recovered. The Patriots were gashed for their share of yards on short over routes, but playing with a lead, they were effective in limiting long gains and forcing Moore to string together several plays in order to put his team in position to score. The touchdown drive near the end of the first half was a 10-play, 75-yard march. Against lesser quarterbacks, the Patriots will take their chances that more often than not those lengthy excursions will end in mistakes rather than touchdowns.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Penalties on Justin Coleman (a hold on a fair-caught punt that put the Patriots at their own 10-yard line) and Geneo Grissom (a hold that negated an 11-yard punt return by Edelman and put the Patriots at their own nine) stand out as key mishaps. Gostkowski's miss from 52 yards at the end of the half on a surface that was glaringly bad should not be held against him. It came from the right hash and missed right. Gostkowski has been kicking his extra points from the left hash for weeks as his kicks have tended to move from left to right. Danny Amendola could help save Edelman from taking any additional shots as a punt-returner in the postseason. His injured ankle is trending in the right direction as the Patriots head into their bye week, and there is optimism that he'll be on the field soon. Cyrus Jones dealt with a knee injury last week that made him a scratch for the regular-season finale.