Tom Brady's hand swelled up and his performance again left something to be desired, but the New England Patriots got the job done.
New England forced three Ryan Tannehill turnovers in the second half and scored 24 unanswered points as the Patriots moved to 6-2 with a 27-17 victory over the Dolphins in Week 8.
Facing a 17-3 deficit heading into halftime, the Patriots defense instantly went to work setting up their offense. Dont'a Hightower sacked Tannehill on the Dolphins' opening drive of the third quarter, pushing them from the New England 19-yard line to the 29 on a windy day at Gillette Stadium.
Caleb Sturgis missed the subsequent 46-yard field goal, and the entire momentum of the contest shifted thereafter. Brady led the Patriots offense on a five-play, 64-yard drive that finished with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson. The score pushed Brady past Fran Tarkenton for the fourth-most touchdown passes in league history (343).
Tannehill's first turnover of the day came on the subsequent drive, when Rob Ninkovich recovered a Logan Ryan strip-sack at the Dolphins' 13-yard line. Set up with great field position for the second time in the half, the Patriots needed only three plays before Brandon Bolden scampered into the end zone from two yards out.
Bolden's touchdown knotted the score at 17-17 with 6:46 remaining in the third quarter, the Dolphins' 17-3 halftime lead evaporating in one minute and 47 seconds.
The Patriots took the lead on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal near the end of the third and finalized the score with a three-yard Stevan Ridley touchdown following a Tannehill interception with 7:18 remaining in the fourth. The Dolphins attempted to mount a comeback, but New England blocked a Sturgis field-goal attempt with just over two minutes remaining, and Tannehill threw his second pick on a 4th-and-24 on Miami's final drive.
The defense and special teams needed to set the tone, as Brady turned in yet another nondescript passing performance. The two-time NFL MVP, with his hand swelling due to a combination of injury and cold weather, proved unable to complete passes down the field. Checking down underneath throughout the first half, Brady had only 25 yards and completed no passes longer than seven in the first half.
He also threw an interception on the Patriots' first drive, his fourth straight week with a pick. Although the offense fared far better in the second half, Brady still finished with only 116 yards through the air on 13-of-22 passing.
After the game, Brady refused to acknowledge his hand was bothering him, per Tom E. Curran of CSN New England:
"My hand is perfect." No injury? "Absolutely not." Tom Brady.— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) October 27, 2013
Brady also acknowledged his team's current record and his outlook on the rest of the year, per ESPN's Mike Reiss:
Photo: Tom Brady -- "We're 6-2 and we have the whole season ahead of us." pic.twitter.com/M8D8nw3Mzf— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) October 27, 2013
Dobson made four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. In his second game back from injury, Rob Gronkowski had only two receptions for 27 yards, though he did have a touchdown called back due to a holding penalty in the third quarter.
In the first half, Tannehill did a nice job of taking advantage of Brady's mistakes. Following the interception, he led the Dolphins 40 yards in 11 plays on a drive that finished with a four-yard pass to Brandon Gibson.
Miami took a 14-0 lead with 9:58 remaining in the second quarter when Tannehill hit Daniel Thomas with a five-yard pass. It looked at that point like the Patriots were turning in a carbon copy of their loss to the New York Jets last week, allowing touchdowns on shortened fields and allowing a young quarterback to get comfortable.
After a 52-yard Sturgis field goal with 35 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Miami had scored three times on its first five drives.
But things quickly fell apart in the second half. The Patriots sacked Tannehill six times in the final two quarters, sending a series of blitzes that the Miami blockers were unable to pick up. Cornerback Logan Ryan picked up two sacks, and Hightower's sack came as part of a 10-tackle day.
The Patriots have now forced turnovers in 35 consecutive games, the longest streak in the league. At 6-2, they'll also keep sole possession of first place in the AFC East despite their offensive struggles.
#Patriots have now forced a turnover in 35 straight games, longest active streak in the NFL— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) October 27, 2013
Miami has now lost four in a row after starting 0-3. With a short week of rest coming before their Thursday night clash with the Cincinnati Bengals, it will be interesting to see how Joe Philbin's team responds.
Tom Brady (QB, New England Patriots): C+
I think we're well past the point of blaming the New England receivers for Brady's weekly poor performances. Perhaps he's been playing with his injured hand all season or merely cannot carry a mediocre supporting cast at age 36, but hopefully most have moved on from him being an every-week must-start in fantasy.
As for how Brady fared in real life, you'll have a hard time finding tape of him looking worse than he did in the first half against Miami. With his hand swelling, he was ineffective, checked down on nearly every attempt and threw a bad first-quarter interception that led to the Dolphins' first touchdown.
Although things got better in the final two quarters, Brady was also the benefactor of great field position. It's hard to give much credit to a quarterback for a 13-yard drive.
With Gronkowski and Danny Amendola both in the lineup this week, the excuses have run thin. Miami ranked 25th in passing yards against prior to Week 8; Brady produced 116 yards. Not great, Tom.
Lamar Miller (RB, Miami Dolphins): B-
Miller hasn't turned into the workhorse back the Dolphins had hoped he would, but a matchup against the Vince Wilfork-less Patriots run defense can cure most ills. New England has struggled mightily against straight-line runners since Wilfork went down with a season-ending Achilles injury, and Miller took advantage.
Taking a majority of his carries between the guard and tackle, Miller finished with 89 yards on 18 carries and caught a few ball out of the backfield. It was the first time all season he eclipsed 80 all-purpose yards.
Daniel Thomas, whose struggles have been well-documented, even created some positive headway against the Patriots' front seven. Then again, it was Thomas' missed assignment that caused Tannehill's fumble, so it's not like he had a perfect game.
But with the Patriots still unable to find even a decent facsimile of Wilfork, look for teams to have similar success on the ground going forward.
Dont'a Hightower (LB, New England Patriots): A
When Jerod Mayo went down for the season, Hightower picked up more responsibility. The second-year linebacker was given a communication device in his helmet, a sign that he would not only see an increase in defensive snaps, but also an expectation of increased leadership.
Hightower has responded by awarding Bill Belichick's faith. He recorded 11 tackles in last week's loss to the Jets and added another 10 on Sunday. His sack on Tannehill in the third quarter helped take three critical points off the board, and the defense was in its correct alignment for almost every snap.
While Hightower won't replace Mayo's experience or productivity, he's doing a better-than-expected job as his pseudo substitute. Along with Brandon Spikes, the Patriots have a promising nucleus of sure tacklers at the linebacker spot—even if their foot speed isn't ideal.
Ryan Tannehill (QB, Miami Dolphins): C
After three straight concerning performances, Tannehill looked like he was finally getting back into fine form in this game. The Dolphins emphasized short and intermediate throws to get the ball out of his hand quickly, and Tannehill responded by making the proper reads and avoiding big mistakes.
It wasn't a perfect performance by any stretch. Tannehill missed a couple wide-open throws, particularly one to Mike Wallace in the third quarter that could have gone for a touchdown up the seam. He then took a sack on the following play, forcing Caleb Sturgis onto the field for a 46-yard kick, which he subsequently missed.
And then things started falling apart even more. The strip-sack was either a horrible missed block by Thomas or a total misread from Tannehill. His interception in the fourth was on a floated ball he had no business throwing.
The Patriots have been carried this season by their defense, which came into this week fifth in pass defense, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. While one couldn't expect Tannehill to come out and dominate, his struggles in the second half are a microcosm of why he's not mentioned alongside Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
The Dolphins won't have long to figure out what went wrong this week, as they're back in action Thursday night for a Halloween clash with the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincinnati take on the New York Jets this week, a matchup that will help clarify the AFC East standings.
New England will get back-to-back home games when the Pittsburgh Steelers come to Gillette Stadium next Sunday. It will be the last game before the Patriots' Week 10 bye.
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