The New England Patriots did not dominate their divisional opponent on Sunday by any means, but they still came away with a seven-point victory over the Miami Dolphins. With their win Sunday, the New England Patriots improved to 5-0 on the season against divisional opponents, and clinched the AFC East title with a four-game lead and tiebreakers in their favor.
The Patriots’ offense did not come close to matching their league-leading averages, putting up just 321 total yards of offense and 23 points, but a tremendous 16-play, 77-yard power-running drive in the fourth quarter killed enough clock to put the game away.
Defensively, the Patriots only had one takeaway and made few big plays, but had a solid overall performance, giving up just one touchdown and holding their opponent below 300 yards of offense for the first time since Week 2.
Which players stood out in this victory, and which players could have done better? Read through the following slides to find out.
Tom Brady: C+
Tom Brady was not at his best on Sunday.
Brady completed just 60 percent of his 40 passing attempts and had struggles with inaccuracy over the course of the game. He also had just two passing plays of over 20 yards, and threw his first interception since the sixth week of the season.
With a game full of mostly short passing, Brady was more of a game manager than a playmaker on Sunday. He didn’t lose the Patriots this game, but he didn’t win it for them either, and that doesn’t earn a great grade for his standards.
Stevan Ridley: B
In the game’s first 51 1/2 minutes, Patriots feature running back Stevan Ridley was held in check. But on the Patriots’ final offensive drive of the game, when they needed to put together a power-running drive to ice the game, he stepped up.
On that drive alone, Ridley ran the ball 11 times for 44 yards, which included three first-down conversions. The Patriots needed Ridley’s ability to pound the ball on that last drive, and he delivered.
Overall, it was a fairly quiet game for Ridley, gaining just 71 yards on 19 carries, but he did score a touchdown and did a solid job overall.
Danny Woodhead: C+
Danny Woodhead used his ability to make quick cuts to make a few nice plays on this game, but overall, he was not a major contributor.
Woodhead had eight touches for 39 yards, and converted two first downs, both of which were plays of over ten yards. Aside from those two plays, however, his impact was small.
Shane Vereen: B-
Shane Vereen only had three touches for 14 yards in this game, but a play that doesn’t show up statistically was actually tied for the Patriots’ longest play on offense of the day. It was Vereen who ran a very good streak route down the right sideline to draw a 31-yard defensive pass interference call on Karlos Dansby.
That play eventually led to nothing, but he also had a key 8-yard run on the Patriots’ game-closing drive. He was not called upon much in this game, but made an impact when he was.
Wes Welker: A-
Not only was Wes Welker the leading source of offense for the Patriots on Sunday, he also set an NFL record. With 12 receptions for 103 yards, Welker became the first player in league history with 16 career game of 10+ receptions and 100+ yards (per the Patriots’ official Twitter account).
Welker was his usual self on Sunday. In a game where the Patriots’ passing offense consisted mostly of short passes, Welker consistently got open and made plays to move the ball gradually down the field.
Welker didn’t have any particularly big plays on Sunday, but was reliable at catching the ball and did score a seven-yard touchdown on a slip screen.
Brandon Lloyd: C-
Brandon Lloyd was expected to be the Patriots’ big playmaker at wide receiver in this game, but for most of Sunday’s contest, it was as if he wasn’t even on the field. When Lloyd made a 10-yard catch during the Patriots’ sealing drive of the fourth quarter, it was not only his first catch but his first target of the entire game.
Lloyd made a nice diving catch on the play he was targeted, and he also did his job well by cleanly fielding the Dolphins’ onside kick attempt at the end of the game. It was a bad day for Lloyd, however, because he was a non-factor in the offense for the majority of the game.
Julian Edelman: B+
Julian Edelman only had one catch for 13 yards in this game, but it was to convert a crucial 3rd and 10 early in the game. On that same drive, Edelman beat coverage and was open for what should have been a 45-yard touchdown, but Brady missed him long.
Edelman had a good day returning punts as well, gaining 15 and 10 yards on two return opportunities.
Unfortunately for Edelman, the news going forward may be worse, as he suffered yet another injury on Sunday. ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported that Edelman was on crutches with a walking boot on his injured foot following Sunday’s game.
Aaron Hernandez: B+
The Patriots have had to deal with tight end Aaron Hernandez being in and out of the lineup and not fully healthy since he suffered a sprained ankle in the second game of the season, but he appeared to finally be back at full strength Sunday. Hernandez was able to make plays throughout the game with his speed, quickness and route-running ability, and finished the game with eight receptions for 97 yards.
Hernandez did have a first-quarter drop, but he made up for it with some of the key plays he made in this game. A 31-yard reception by Hernandez to open the fourth quarter set up a Patriots field goal, and that play was one of three third-down conversions by Hernandez.
Daniel Fells: C-
Yet again, backup tight end Daniel Fells did not make much impact when he was on the field in this game.
Fells was targeted on one deep ball, but was unable to make a play on an overthrown pass by Brady. He drew a 4-yard defensive pass interference penalty in the second quarter, but a hold deep in Patriots territory in the third quarter helped force a punt in bad field position.
Sebastian Vollmer had a challenging matchup on Sunday, going up against Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake.
Nate Solder: C+
The Patriots have been very solid in pass protection this season, but they had one of their worst performances of the year on Sunday, allowing four sacks to the Miami Dolphins. Nate Solder was among the Patriots’ offensive linemen who struggled in this capacity.
Solder gave up a crucial third-down sack in goal-to-go offense early in the fourth quarter, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal, and allowed pressure to come off the left side throughout the game. He was better in run blocking, but was not as dominant as usual in the power game either.
Sebastian Vollmer: C
Sebastian Vollmer has had a very good season as one of the NFL’s top right tackles, but after missing the previous game with injury, he may not have been at 100 percent on Sunday. Vollmer had a tough time in pass protection against the Dolphins, including a 6-yard sack allowed to Cameron Wake.
Vollmer had a tough time dealing with Wake’s speed off the edge — he was also called for a hold against Wake on another occasion — and he was not great in the run game either. The Patriots allowed too much pressure against Brady, and a subpar showing from Vollmer was a big reason for that.
Donald Thomas: A-
Donald Thomas may be a fill-in for injured starting left guard Logan Mankins, but aside from a holding penalty picked up on the Patriots’ first offensive play from scrimmage, he was the Patriots’ most solid lineman in this game.
Thomas was especially good on the Patriots’ final drive of the game, when the interior offensive line took over in the power running game. Where did the majority of the Patriots’ runs go on that drive? Behind the left guard, a result of Thomas’ success in opening up holes in the ground game.
Ryan Wendell: B+
As the Patriots’ interior offensive line stepped up late in their Sunday win, a lot of the responsibility fell on their anchor at center, Ryan Wendell. Wendell did a very good job leading the way for the ground game, and had an overall solid performance.
In addition to leading the way when the Patriots’ ground game had to step up, he also had a key block to spring Wes Welker’s seven-yard slip screen touchdown in the second quarter.
Nick McDonald: B
Right guard Dan Connolly left the game in the first quarter with a back injury, forcing the Patriots to bring Nick McDonald into the lineup.
McDonald struggled throughout the first half, struggling in run blocking while giving up a big sack up the middle to Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai in pass protection. That prompted the Patriots to replace him for two series in the third quarter with Marcus Cannon.
From that point on, however, McDonald returned into the lineup, and he was superb for the rest of the game. During the Patriots’ impressive power-running drive in the fourth quarter, McDonald was surprisingly their most dominant run blocker.
McDonald could be knocked for his early struggles in a game that he did not even play a full four quarters, but most importantly, he stepped up when his team needed him to most.
Marcus Cannon: Incomplete
Most of us have thought that Marcus Cannon is a better fit to play inside at guard than outside at tackle, so it was exciting when he finally got a chance to play inside on Sunday. The results of him being inside, however, were unspectacular, and he did not stay in the game more than two series.
Cannon struggled somewhat when he was in the game at right guard, but grading him off of two series may be an unfair assessment. Therefore, his grade is incomplete.
Vince Wilfork: A
With two key defensive linemen in Chandler Jones and Jermaine Cunningham out of the lineup Sunday, it was crucial for nose tackle Vince Wilfork to lead the way for the Patriots’ defense up front on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, their star defensive lineman stepped up.
Wilfork overpowered Dolphins guard Richie Incognito twice in the first quarter, first to make a tackle for loss on a run play in the backfield, and later to hit quarterback Ryan Tannehill to force an incompletion. Later in the game, Wilfork split two blockers to come up with another tackle for loss, and had the game’s only takeaway by reaching down to recover a fumble.
Wilfork is consistently an impact player on the Patriots’ defense, and that was certainly the case on Sunday.
Trevor Scott: A-
With Jones and Cunningham out, defensive end Trevor Scott got his chance to break out and join the Patriots’ starting lineup on Sunday. He certainly rose to the occasion.
Scott showed what he can bring to the defense as a pass-rusher, coming up with two terrific sacks off the left side. One of those sacks created the Patriots’ only defensive takeaway of the game, forcing a Tannehill fumble recovered by Wilfork.
Scott struggled when he was on the field in run defense, but he earns a great grade for his impact pass-rushing.
Rob Ninkovich: B
Starting defensive end Rob Ninkovich did not make much impact as a pass-rusher in this game, but he was very sound on run defense. He made three tackles around the line of scrimmage, and consistently held his gap to make it difficult for the Dolphins to run the ball on his side on the line.
Brandon Deaderick: A-
Another defensive lineman who received his first start of the season and took advantage of the opportunity was Brandon Deaderick, who was chosen to start next to Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle on Sunday.
He ended up splitting repetitions with Kyle Love throughout the game, but he was very impactful as an interior penetrator when he was in the game.
Deaderick did well as an interior pass-rusher. He was also very good in run defense, on which he made three stops and forced a fumble at the line of scrimmage that the Dolphins were able to recover.
Deaderick’s repetitions have gradually increased over the course of the season, and he should continue to see significant playing time off of a strong performance and with Jermaine Cunningham still on suspension for three more games.
Kyle Love: B+
Taking Kyle Love out of the starting lineup and giving him a smaller package of repetitions may have been a good thing for their usual starter at defensive tackle. When Love was in the game, he was much more of an impact player than usual.
Love has made little impact as a pass-rusher this season, but he brought pressure against Ryan Tannehill that forced the quarterback out of the pocket on multiple occasions in this game. He also shut down Tannehill for a 2-yard tackle for loss on a rushing attempt up the middle.
Justin Francis: C+
Justin Francis received increased repetitions with Jones and Cunningham out of the lineup, playing a hybrid defensive end/defensive tackle role like Cunningham usually does. When he was in the game, however, Francis made some plays but was mostly subpar.
Francis did have one very good inside stunt that forced Tannehill out of the pocket and eventually to throw an incompletion, and made two stops on run defense. But on other plays, Francis looked more like an undrafted rookie, getting swallowed by blockers and struggling to get in position on run defense.
Brandon Spikes: A-
As has usually been the case this season, middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was the Patriots’ best linebacker on Sunday.
Spikes did not have his usual allotment of tackles, finishing the game with only four tackles, but did a good job of filling holes on run defense when he needed to. Surprisingly, where Spikes stood out was in his pass coverage, making two athletic, leaping pass deflections in this game.
Coming into the season, Spikes’ liability was his pass coverage. Now that he has improved significantly in that area, he has become one of the NFL’s top all-around middle linebackers.
Jerod Mayo: B+
Jerod Mayo did not fill up the tackles column of the stat sheet as often as usual, with only six total tackles on the day, but he had a number of big-impact plays. Most significantly, Mayo forced a fumble in the second quarter, and came up with a huge fourth-quarter sack on a third-down in the red zone.
The Patriots did not recover that fumble, but it was still another strip that can be credited to Mayo. The sack made a huge impact, however, as it forced the Dolphins into a field goal on a drive where they would have benefited greatly from a touchdown.
Mayo did not have one of his better days in run defense, but his grade is bumped up significantly by his big plays.
Dont’a Hightower: C
Rookie outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower continue to have subpar play on Sunday. Hightower was only credited with two tackles for the game, and aside from one quarterback hurry that forced an incompletion, he did little to make a difference in the contest.
The Patriots used a lot of nickel in this game, and one likely reason for that is that cornerback Kyle Arrington has been more reliable and a bigger difference-maker in run defense than Hightower has been in recent weeks.
Aqib Talib: C
The New England Patriots traded for Aqib Talib to be their No. 1 cornerback, but he didn’t look like a No. 1 cornerback on Sunday. Talib struggled in the one-on-one matchup with Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline, a day on which Hartline had five receptions for 84 yards, and should have had two touchdowns against Talib had Ryan Tannehill made better throws.
In the first quarter, on a play where Talib was clearly expecting safety help on the back end, he allowed Hartline to break free for what would have been a 49-yard touchdown had Tannehill not overthrown the deep ball. Later, Hartline beat Talib to the end zone on what could have been a 24-yard touchdown, but the pass was thrown too far to the back of the end zone, leading Hartline to come down out of bounds with the catch.
Misplays in coverage may not have burned Talib too badly today, but they will in the future if he doesn’t play better.
Alfonzo Dennard: A
Aside from Brian Hartline, the Miami Dolphins’ other wide receivers only caught two passes. A big reason for that was the shutdown coverage of Alfonzo Dennard on the other side of the field.
Dennard did not have any significantly blown coverages in this game, and he was also solid in run defense, making five tackles. Dennard has quickly emerged as the Patriots’ most solid cornerback, which he was in this game.
Kyle Arrington: A
After struggling throughout the first half of the season in the starting lineup, Kyle Arrington has been excellent in the past two games as the nickel cornerback.
Arrington actually tied Jerod Mayo as the Patriots’ leading tackler with six stops, and he made some very good tackles among them. Three of his stops came on third-down attempts where he stopped his opponents from converting; twice, that opponent was a scrambling Ryan Tannehill.
Arrington also forced a third-quarter incompletion by blitzing to hit Tannehill as he threw a pass.
Devin McCourty: C+
Devin McCourty had his most quiet game since moving to safety on Sunday. All of his three tackles came downfield, while he did not do a great job of giving safety help in pass coverage in this game.
McCourty has been the star and difference-maker for the Patriots’ secondary in most games this season, but he wasn’t on Sunday.
Steve Gregory: B-
After having the best game of his career last Thursday against the New York Jets, he had a very quiet day on Sunday. With the exception of a very good safety blitz that forced a 3-yard tackle for loss in the third quarter, Gregory did not make much impact in this game.
The safeties were not great in pass coverage in this contest, and it appeared to be Gregory who was responsible for not giving safety help on what should have been a 49-yard touchdown pass to Brian Hartline in the first quarter. Gregory didn’t necessarily have a bad game, but in watching the game live, he went mostly unnoticed.
Tavon Wilson: C-
Rookie safety Tavon Wilson didn’t play much, and when he did, he was exposed. On the lone occasion he was targeted on a passing play, he was out of position in coverage and gave up a 20-yard reception to Dolphins tight end Charles Clay.
Stephen Gostkowski: B+
Stephen Gostkowski’s game started off very poorly when he pushed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide right in the first quarter. He bounced back strongly from that disappointing miss, however, making three consecutive field goal attempts and putting five consecutive kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks.
It is easy to harp on his one miss, but he actually made a very positive contribution to the Patriots in this game.
Zoltan Mesko: B+
The statistics may not necessarily show it, but Zoltan Mesko had a good day punting the football.
Mesko’s first punt was a 54-yard boot to the 17-yard line, which was returned six yards to outside the 20. His next punt could have been downed inside the 5-yard line, but was misplayed by Matt Slater and ended up as a touchback. Mesko’s third punt only travelled 38 yards, but he got very solid hangtime on the punt, allowing Slater to make an immediate tackle.
Matt Slater: B+
As mentioned, Slater made one mistake on special teams, when he misplayed a punt inside the 5, knocking it off himself and back into the end zone. He made up for it with the rest of his performance, however, leading the Patriots with three special teams tackles.
Coaching Staff: B-
Given the Patriots’ big wins in recent weeks, a more impressive performance over the below-.500 Dolphins was expected. But while the Patriots didn’t dominate this game, and may not have won if not for a few crucial Dolphins miscues early, they did what they needed to do late in the game to secure a division-clinching victory.
The Patriots’ offensive gameplan failed for most of the day, but in the fourth quarter, it came together when the Patriots executed a power-running gameplan to perfection in order to run more than seven minutes off the clock before taking a two-score lead.
Defensively, the Patriots were as sound as they have been all season, relying on solid play rather than big plays to keep the Dolphins out of the end zone with one exception. The prevent defense gameplan employed on their final series was a coaching decision worthy of criticism, but the gameplan was mostly solid until then.
Dan Hope is the New England Patriots game day correspondent and an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more coverage of the Patriots, follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.