By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Last year, the Patriots went down to Miami in Week 17 and laid an egg. This year, the team made the same trek to South Florida, seemingly intent on not repeating the same mistake.
The Patriots hit the ground running on Sunday, opening up a 20-0 lead in Miami while dominating play early. Though the Dolphins did fight to make a game of it, the Patriots responded with a 77-yard touchdown pass and then a game-swinging forced turnover on defense.
With the win, the Patriots earned a perfect 8-0 record on the road this season, a 14-2 record overall, and most importantly, the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
With no injuries suffered on the day, it was a complete success for Bill Belichick’s team.
With that, here are the Four Ups and the Four Downs from the Patriots’ 35-14 win on Sunday. As tends to happen in 21-point victories, the balance of the ups and downs is a bit off.
FOUR FIVE UPS
What is there left to say about what the Patriots’ quarterback has done in the 2016 season? He closed out the season in what has become his typical excellent fashion: 25-for-33, 276 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions.
The Patriots’ defense was susceptible to giving up huge passing gains over the middle of the field for a bit in this game, as they were apparently waiting in the weeds to force a crucial turnover that could change the game. And when it was most needed — in the fourth quarter, less than nine minutes left, two-possession game — McCourty stepped up. The defensive captain knocked the ball right out of Damien Williams’ arms, and Shea McClellin scooped up the ball and returned it 69 yards up the field.
LeGarrette Blount was in the end zone with the back-breaking touchdown just six plays later, and the victory had been essentially sealed.
Jay Ajayi entered the game averaging 5.0 yards per carry on the year. He was coming off a 206-yard performance last week — his third 200-yard performance of the season. He’s over 1,200 yards on the year. He’s been an absolute force.
But the Patriots dedicated themselves to stopping him, and it showed. Ajayi managed to gain just 59 yards on 16 carries, for an average of just 3.7 yards per carry.
Elandon Roberts and Trey Flowers recorded five tackles each on Ajayi, while 11 Patriots in total recorded tackles on the running back. It was a team effort, and the dedication was there.
With Malcolm Mitchell out of action, Michael Floyd seized his moment. He carried three men on his back and barreled through two morej en route to scoring a touchdown in the first quarter to stretch the lead to 14-0. He made an impressive toe-tapping catch along the sideline to move the chains on another scoring drive. And he made the block of the year to help spring Julian Edelman for a 77-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.
It was, all around, a very impressive effort from the receiver.
Speaking of Edelman, he was just immense. There’s no other way to describe it. He caught eight passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, bringing his season total over 1,000 yards for the second time in his career. He also successfully converted a two-point conversion, ran for six yards, and caught punts throughout the day without incident. He’s as important as anybody else to making that Patriots train go.
FOUR THREE DOWNS
Both Edelman and Blount picked up personal fouls for unnecessary roughness after whistles. Neither turned out to be much of a big deal, but in a closer game, such losses of control can lead to problems.
Both players were caught retaliating, as Edelman didn’t appreciate being taunted by Bobby McCain and offered a headbutt upon getting to his feet. Blount didn’t appreciate a late shove from Ndamukong Suh and ended up ripping the big man’s helmet right off his head late in the fourth quarter.
Again, not big problems, and a physical contest like this one, it’s almost to be expected. But they go down in the books as 15-yard penalties, which are never ideal.
Taking that a step further, the Patriots showed a knack for bad timing with a number of penalties on Sunday. Overall, they committed seven penalties for 64 yards, and when you consider the aforementioned personal fouls, those totals aren’t jarring. But the timing was costly.
Edelman’s 15-yarder pushed the Patriots to a second-and-25, turning a major touchdown opportunity into a field goal drive. A holding penalty by Justin Coleman on a fair catch by Edelman forced the Patriots to start a drive at their own 10-yard line. A holding penalty on Geneo Grissom on an Edelman punt returned changed New England’s starting position from their own 30-yard line back to their own 10-yard line. And a Joe Thuney holding penalty turned a third-and-2 into a second-and-26; the Patriots would settle for a punt.
Again, in a 21-point win, these mistakes don’t matter much for the game at hand. But you can bet they matter in the meeting rooms.
Getting off the field became a real issue for the Patriots’ defense throughout the game on Sunday. The Dolphins finished 7-for-12, but they converted five straight third downs from the second quarter into the third quarter, including a touchdown pass to Kenny Stills on which the Patriots completely blew the coverage over the deep middle.
Overall, 14 points allowed on the road is a solid performance. But there is work to be done.