The NFL's Thursday night games are typically sloppy affairs. With little time to prepare or recover fully from the previous game's physical beating, players just aren't quite as ready as they would be normally. That was the case for the Patriots in their Thursday Night Football affair with the Dolphins. They committed eight penalties for a total of 69 yards. They were tackled behind the line of scrimmage six separate times. Yet still they dominated the Dolphins in every aspect of the game and won, 36-7. Huh? The level at which the Patriots are currently operating is confounding. They've been left with an offensive line full of backups. Their cornerback group relies on two undrafted players and a third-rounder from Rutgers. One of their top playmakers was out of football for almost two full years. Yet still they have been the most dominant team in football, and the reasserted that dominance on a Thursday night against a division rival that came into Gillette Stadium riding high and left with its spirit shot.
The Patriots have now hit the 30-point plateau in six straight games, but it hasn't all been perfect for their offense. Last week there were drops that slowed them down. This week there were penalties. Of the team's eight flags, seven were called on the offense. Two were illegal block penalties, with one of the 15-yarders -- a clip by Josh Kline -- snuffing out a promising Patriots drive to end the first quarter. Two were called on tight end Rob Gronkowski, who picked up a false start as well as an offensive pass interference penalty near the Dolphins goal line. "We made too many mistakes," Kline said. "That hurt us a lot, and it killed some of our drives." But once the Patriots got things relatively cleaned up, they were hard to stop. Running back Dion Lewis and his elusiveness -- he forced six missed tackles in the game, according to Pro Football Focus -- changed the offense and gave the Dolphins one more weapon to worry about in the passing game. The running game was a threat once again after a week off, and Tom Brady was . . . well, Tom Brady.
If it feels as though Brady's grades have gotten a little repetitive, that's because they have. He surpassed 300 yards for the third consecutive game against the Dolphins, making accurate throws in the face of consistent pressure, and even while being hit. His first-and-10 throw to Brandon LaFell with 9:34 left in the game went for 25 yards -- and gave him 300 yards for the 69th time in his career, third-most all-time -- despite the fact that he was simultaneously hit on the hip by Ndamukong Suh. Brady was hurried 20 times in the game, sacked twice and hit four more times, according to PFF, yet his yards per attempt (9.4) were the second-highest of the season. Consider this: When matching Brady's numbers with those of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback many believe to be the best in football at the moment, Brady's yards per attempt (8.3 to 8.2), yards per game (344.3 to 248.5), and touchdown-to-interception ratio (10/1 to 7.5/1) are all better. Their offenses are different, perhaps with the Patriots opting to put the game in Brady's hands more often, but the Patriots quarterback appears to be working on a level all his own.
TIGHT END: A-
Dolphins safety Reshad Jones had been performing like a game-changer in the secondary for Miami over the course of the last two games, but he was embarrassed by Gronkowski on the first Patriots drive of the game. The Patriots used a play-action fake, pulling guard Josh Kline to help sell the run, to help give Gronkowski some space over the top of Dolphins linebackers, who appeared to be in a zone coverage. When Brady found Gronkowski over the middle, Jones had an opportunity to make an open-field tackle but whiffed. It didn't look as though he wanted anything to do with the 6-foot-6, 360-pounder. Gronkowski's production for the Patriots offense wasn't limited to that 47-yard score, though. It was Gronkowski who appeared to be triple-teamed late in the second quarter, freeing up Lewis for an easy 16-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Gronkowski also pass blocked on eight snaps and shifted into the backfield to serve as a lead-blocking fullback late in the game. He's the most well-rounded tight end in the league, and he showed it Thursday. Michael Williams continues to see significant time on the line as a blocking tight end -- he was in for 21 run plays on his 31 snaps -- while Scott Chandler saw more action (29 snaps) than he had since Week 3 against Jacksonville.
This was a two-receiver game plan for the most part, and juding by their usage at that position, Brandon LaFell has quickly solidified himself as one of the top two. He played in 63 snaps compared to Danny Amendola's 35, and though LaFell caught four passes for 47 yards, it was his blocking that drew praise after the game as his big hit on safety Michael Thomas helped spring Gronkowski's long touchdown. Julian Edelman (72 snaps) played one of his best games of the year, catching seven of his nine targets for 81 yards and two scores. One week after dropping a pair of passes, he secured every pass he could and picked up 23 total yards after the catch. He has perfected the art of using his hand to keep himself from going to the turf, which helps him scrap for whatever yardage he can get while simultaneously staying low to avoid huge hits.
RUNNING BACK: B+
Lewis said after the game that he was still not 100 percent recovered from the abdominal injury that kept him out against the Jets -- a scary proposition for any team that may have to face him at full strength. Against an effective Dolphins pass rush, Lewis was one of Brady's top outlet men, making people miss on almost every touch. While his spin away from Koa Misi had the New England crowd drooling, and though his touchdown was an important first half strike, it was his ability to pick up a first down on a third-and-16 screen play on the team's first drive of the game that helped the Patriots get things started. The Patriots weren't dominant when they ran the ball, but they were better than their yards-per-rush numbers int he game (3.7) suggested. Subtract James White's three yards rushing in garbage time and Brady's quarterback sneak, and the Patriots averaged 4.13 yards per carry with LeGarrette Blount and Lewis. The offense in general was much more balanced than it had been against the Jets. While Patriots coach Bill Belichick has made his feelings known on the idea of "balance" (he doesn't much care for it), he admitted in a conference call on Friday that showing a willingness to run helped set up the play-action passing game, and the play-action passing game helped set up the running game late. Though Lewis is the clear lead back in New England's pass-happy scheme, Blount remains a threat.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C+
The Patriots are making it work with what they have. On Thursday they found themselves with their third option at left tackle, their third option at right guard, their third option at right tackle and their second option at center. Miami's more athletic front posed more problems than did the Jets powerful defensive linemen did in Week 7, and despite allowing 19 hurries and two sacks, they did enough to help the Patriots put up almost 40 points. If Tre' Jackson, who left the game with a knee injury, is forced to miss any time, the line will be stressed even further. But center Bryan Stork is eligible to come off of the short-term injured reserve list and play this week, which could help the team's depth on the interior. "I think there's always things to do better," Sebastian Vollmer said after the game when asked about the line's performance in light of the injuries it's dealt with. "I don't think we're ever satisfied, and I don't think we should be. We'll see what happens on film. I'm sure there were breakdowns. I'm sure there were technique things we gotta do better. That's what we're striving for for next week."
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
The Patriots punt team was on point in this one, limiting return man Jarvis Landry, who Bill Belichick called the best his team had seen to this point in the year. Ryan Allen knocked four of his six punts inside the Miami 20-yard line. Matthew Slater was once again one of the best coverage players on the field, and undrafted rookie Brandon King continues to show up in this phase of the game as well. Both players made a special teams tackle. Stephen Gostkowski, who was recently named Special Teams Player of the Week in the AFC for his game against the Jets, hit a low 52-yard draw that used the wind to its advantage and eventually split the uprights. "One of the [Miami] guys was saying, ‘He missed it, he missed it.’ But then our guys said, ‘No, he didn’t.’ So that was pretty cool." The Patriots continue to have an advantage in this area of the game seemingly every week.
The Patriots front-seven continued its stellar play on Thursday, stifling what had been an explosive Dolphins running attack in two games under interim head coach Dan Campbell. And defensive coordinator Matt Patricia's unit as a whole had quarterback Ryan Tannehill baffled. The Dolphins allowed 20 quarterback hurries and seven quarterback hits on top of the five sacks tallied by the Patriots defense. New England turned the ball over, they got off the field on nine of 11 third down plays, they were penalized just once, and they allowed a paltry 5.2 yards per passing play. It was as clean a performance as the Patriots have had this season on that side of the ball -- one that will be tough to top.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
All eight Patriots defensive linemen who got in the game recorded at least one quarterback pressure save for Sealver Siliga, but even he got into the backfield, tackling running back Lamar Miller for a two-yard loss with about three minutes left in the third quarter. It was a big night for both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who went into the game with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. Not only was Jabaal Sheard (ankle) out for the second consecutive week, but Miller and the Dolphins had shown that they loved pressing the edges for big plays in the running game. Both ends responded accordingly, especially Jones, who is now the league leader in sacks with 8.5. He recorded two on the night, as well as two more hurries and one quarterback hit. Ninkovich hurried Tannehill three times, hit him twice, sacked him once, and drew a holding penalty on a third down play in the first quarter. Rookie Malcom Brown continues to show his progression against the run as he made three stops at the line of scrimmage in the run game, forming a formidable wall on the middle of the defensive line alongside Alan Branch. Dominique Easley continues to look healthy and, at times, unblockable. He led interior linemen with 33 snaps and recorded two hurries and a quarterback hit. As a team, the Patriots are on pace to set a single-season record for sacks. They have 26 in seven games, and at this rate, they'd end up with 59 sacks. The record was set in 1977, when New England racked up 58. Generating that kind of pressure makes life a lot easier for a cornerback group that is still relatively inexperienced.
Once again, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins left their imprint on a Patriots win in a variety of ways. Hightower, in particular, was a force for the second straight week as both a pass-rusher and a run-stuffer. He picked up another sack, giving him four for the season, and he was split-seconds away from a few more. He hurried Tannehill a team-high five times in the game and had a pass breakup in the middle of the field, reminding anyone watching that he can get off the ground pretty well for someone who weighs 265 pounds. Jonathan Freeny saw just seven snaps, but once again he saw time on the field before captain Jerod Mayo (10 snaps).
The Patriots didn't appear to stick with any one set of matchups in this game as they did against the Jets when Malcolm Butler matched up with Eric Decker one-on-one and Logan Ryan took Brandon Marshall with help over the top from Devin McCourty. With a wider variety of targets on the Dolphins side of things, who had who varied, but it ended up mattering little. The Patriots went with three corners for most of the game, giving undrafted rookie Justin Coleman a season-high 56 snaps. He responded with a pair of pass breakups. Malcolm Butler continued to see a fair share of targets, but never allowed any game-breaking plays. Logan Ryan, for his part, may have had the best day of any member of the Patriots secondary. He played every snap, ended up with his third pick of the year, and allowed a 26.7 quarterback rating when targeted. Since Ryan was drafted in 2013, only five players in the NFL, including Richard Sherman, Brent Grimes and Aqib Talib, have more picks than Ryan's 10. Ryan's Rutgers teammate Duron Harmon had a pick of his own, which was also his third of the year, and both Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung had strong games from their safety spots. Chung played well against the run, as usual, and broke up a pass. Meanwhile McCourty, who played in the deep middle of the field for the majority of the game, ended up with a rare sack -- his first since his rookie year. "I don't get many chances," he said after the game. "But obviously if I get a sack, it's probably all because of Matty [Patricia] drawing it up and me coming free because I'm not a great pass rusher."