Implosions in Foxboro come in all shapes and sizes and despite a lackluster effort in many aspects by the Patriots, the Miami Dolphins were more than happy to oblige in a 35-17 New England victory on Sunday afternoon.
The Patriots won their seventh game in a row and have held each opponent to 17 points or fewer during the run, continuing to assuage early season fears about the defense. New England is now 9-2 and has a three-game lead in the AFC East.
Not that the game was ever really in doubt, but the Dolphins couldn’t get out of their own way on numerous occasions late in the second quarter and early on in the third.
Miami had an excellent opportunity to get within a score at the end of the first half and cash in on a rare Tom Brady interception, which he threw to Bobby McCain. Off the pick, the Dolphins drove all the way down to the New England 15-yard line and in doing so, ensured the Patriots wouldn’t have enough time put together another offensive series in the first half. But Matt Moore made the poor decision of targeting Stephon Gilmore in man coverage along the goal line, heaving up a pass that Gilmore easily beat Devante Parker to for an interception in the end zone. Gilmore returned the ball 20 yards before being brought down with seven seconds left, sending the Patriots into the locker room with a 21-10 lead.
“They ran that route on us earlier in the first quarter and I knew they were going to come back to it,” Gilmore said of his interception. “I know every time Devante Parker is in the slot he runs the seam empty so I just beat him to the spot.”
Miami received the second half kickoff but went three-and-out, deciding to punt on fourth-and-inches from its own 33-yard line.
Danny Amendola nearly gave the ball right back to the Dolphins after muffing the return, but was able to fall back on top of the ball just in time to reestablish New England possession.
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Miami’s inability to come up with the ball set the stage for a pair of personal foul penalties as it tried to slow the Patriots down, effectively taking itself out of the game in the process. Xavien Howard got called for a facemask penalty on an incomplete pass, handing New England 15 free yards.
But that was nothing compared to McCain, who threw a punch at Amendola after the conclusion of a play three snaps later. McCain undid the goodwill created by his interception and gifted the Patriots 12 more yards, or half the distance to the goal line.
Two plays later, Brady connected with Rob Gronkowski in the end zone for a second time in the game to run New England’s lead to 28-10. The multi-touchdown game for Gronk gives him 16 for his career with the Patriots, surpassing the 15 such games for Randy Moss that had been a franchise record.
Brady finished 18-for-28 passing for 227 yards and four touchdowns, as well as his first interception since Week 6.
Though he was sacked just once, Brady was hit eight times – including on four such occasions by Cameron Wake, who was lined up primarily against Patriots backup right tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Wake got his sack with Cameron Fleming in for Waddle, however.
The Patriots were without both starting right tackle Marcus Cannon and center David Andrews, who was spelled by Ted Karras. Naturally a guard, Karras’s big blunder came on a shotgun snap to Brady with New England seemingly on cruise control, up 14-0.
On second-and-4 from the Patriots’ 38-yard line, Karras snapped the ball to Brady prior to the quarterback being ready, leading to a free-for-all to the ball in which Brady hit the ground vying for the ball along with a pair of Dolphins defenders. Brady emerged from the pile with nothing more than a scrape on his elbow, but Reshad Jones scooped the ball and scored to get Miami on the board, 14-7.
For his part, Karras took ownership of the mishap after the game.
“That’s 100 percent my fault,” he said. “I just snapped it early. It was 100 percent on me. It was kind of a nightmare but we overcame it.”
The Patriots took an initial 7-0 lead on a Rex Burkhead 2-yard touchdown catch, the result of a fake punt conversion as New England faced fourth-and-8 to begin the series. Nate Ebner ran 14 yards to pick up the drive-extending first down but injured his knee on the play and did not return.
Dormant over the last several weeks, the Patriots also received a major contribution from their pass rush. New England piled up seven sacks of Moore – all in the second half – a major reason why despite the offensive never accelerating into fifth gear, there was never a cause for concern at Gillette.
Elandon Roberts and Trey Flowers had two sacks each, while Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Jones and Eric Lee picked up one sack apiece.
It was the first career sack for Lee, freshly signed from Buffalo’s practice squad last week.
Dion Lewis became the first Patriot to run for over 100 yards on the ground in a single game this season, establishing a career-high with 112 yards on seven carries.
“My job is to protect the ball and make plays,” Lewis said. “That’s my job in the offense and that’s what I try to do every game. Just protect the ball and make plays when I get the opportunity.”
As a team, New England’s 199 yards on the ground were also a season best. The team broke out running the ball without Mike Gillislee, who was a healthy scratch for the third week in a row.
It’s back to the road for the Patriots, who will spend the next three weeks away from Foxboro. This time, however, the team won’t need to leave the Eastern Time Zone or prep for games miles above sea level. New England will face Buffalo next Sunday at 1 p.m., Miami again the following week on Monday Night Football and Pittsburgh to close out the trip on Sunday, Dec. 17.