NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England’s starters were left in for the duration of this week’s game by head coach Bill Belichick and rewarded him by dominating Miami en route to a 28-0 victory in the season finale. The win, combined with Houston’s earlier loss at Indianapolis, earned New England the AFC’s second playoff seed with a 12-4 final record. Read on for some of the key points from this afternoon’s game.
1. Patriots pass rush aggressive, disruptive all game
Matt Patricia and co. were more aggressive this week than usual; their boldness was rewarded with a shutout. New England blitzed their linebackers – Rob Ninkovich and Dont’a Hightower – and were rewarded with a quarterback hit from Ninkovich and an interception by Steve Gregory on a pass thrown into double coverage during the first quarter. The play set up New England inside Miami’s 40-yard line and was immediately followed by a deep completion to Rob Gronkowski which placed the Patriots inside the red zone. Tom Brady hit Wes Welker over the middle for a touchdown on the following play.
New England later sacked Ryan Tannehill on third-and-four by rushing Vince Wilfork from the left end spot to force Ryan Tannehill from the pocket; Brandon Deaderick eventually sacked Tannehill to force a punt. Later in the game, Trevor Scott’s pressure led to a sack by Vince Wilfork on second down; Scott followed up Wilfork’s sack with one of his own on third down to force another Miami punt. Recently-promoted defensive back Derrick Martin recorded a fourth-quarter sack as well; Justin Francis sacked Ryan Tannehill on the following play.
2. Gronkowski returns to action, catches touchdown in limited time
As reported, Rob Gronkowski was active this week and appeared in a limited role; Gronkowski sported a brace on his surgically-repaired forearm. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels mainly applied Gronkowski in a blocking role; Gronkowski was targeted on just three throws, the first of which resulted in a 19-yard gain. He also caught a touchdown on a seam route late in the game. Michael Hoomanawanui replaced Gronkowski part of the way through the game.
Despite his limited playing time, Gronkowski appeared to have no problems with contact and overall the appearance can be considered a success for alleviating concerns about his ability to contribute in upcoming playoff matchups. To compensate for Gronkowski’s limited role, the Patriots employed a more balanced offensive attack than last time; however, the heavy emphasis on Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez as receiving options remained. Welker caught eight passes, while Hernandez added five of his own.
3. Patriots successfully avoid turning the ball over this week
One area of concern heading into the game was New England’s ability to limit offensive turnovers. In that regard, the game can be considered a success; the Patriots did not commit a fumble or throw an interception all game (what was initially ruled an interception returned for a touchdown was later overturned by video evidence which showed that Tom Brady’s pass had hit the ground.)
The only costly turnover committed by the Patriots was a turnover on downs during the first quarter. New England took something of a risk by attempting to convert a fourth-and-six situation from inside Miami’s thirty-yard line, but Brady’s pass was too quick for Wes Welker to handle. The Patriots were supposedly motivated by Stephen Gostkowski’s inability to handle the windy conditions at Gillette during pregame warmups. The decision appeared validated later on in the game, when Nate Kaeding hooked a 41-yard field goal in the same direction wide left.
4. Running back carries divided between top three backs
New England allowed Stevan Ridley to shoulder the workload back in week thirteen; this week, running backs Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen saw increased roles in the offense. Perhaps the best example of New England’s increased dedication to diversifying their carries occured in the middle of the second quarter, when Shane Vereen assumed the brunt of the workload down to the goal line.
Vereen exited the game after a second-and-goal carry, with Danny Woodhead carrying the ball on third-and-goal and Stevan Ridley finishing the drive with a one-yard touchdown run behind left guard Logan Mankins on fourth-and-goal from the one. Later, the Patriots mirrored this progression by rushing Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and finally Stevan Ridley to score a touchdown and increase their lead to 21-0 with one minute remaining in the half. Brandon Bolden entered the game late in the fourth quarter and broke free for a big gain.
5. Rob Ninkovich the lone season-finale injury; status in question
Because Houston lost to Indianapolis in the 1:00 game, New England kicked off knowing that they could earn a first-round bye by defeating Miami. Consequently, New England’s starters were in heavy usage, with relatively little substituting. Unfortunately, the Patriots’ reliance on starters resulted in a hip injury sustained by defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who remained on the ground for quite some time and could potentially miss time in the playoffs.
Coach Belichick’s decision to leave Ninkovich in the game can be defended considering the potential ramifications, but Ninkovich’s absence may leave the Patriots thin on the defensive line. Potential replacements for Ninkovich include Brandon Deaderick, Jermaine Cunningham, and Justin Francis. Niko Koutouvides replaced Ninkovich at linebacker following the injury.