Brady, unstoppable Patriots hand Dan Campbell's Dolphins a reality check
Thursday night games can be a tricky proposition for even the best of teams. Not this time. The Patriots marched down the field for a touchdown on the game's opening possession, tacked on another TD just before halftime and rolled to a 36-7 win over the supposedly resurgent Dolphins.
The Dolphins came into the game hot, having smoked two opponents after Dan Campbell took over as interim coach. However, they had no answers for Tom Brady nor could they replicate any of their recent offensive success.
New England is now 7-0 and can move halfway to a perfect regular season by knocking off Washington next week. Before that, though, here are three thoughts on the Patriots' latest win:
1. Dion Lewis is well past being a novelty: The 25-year-old running back, who bounced from Philadelphia to Cleveland before missing the 2015 season, quite simply is one of the most elusive playmakers in the league right now. Just ask Miami linebacker Koa Misi. He got caught trying to cover Lewis one-on-one in the flat early Thursday. Lewis made a reception with his back turned to Misi, faked a move inside, then spun toward the sideline as Misi nearly fell over. The result was an 18-yard gain.
Lewis's ability to start and stop is remarkable, and he's a perfect fit within the New England offense.
Better yet from the Patriots' standpoint, he's another extremely versatile weapon to fold into the mix, alongside matchup nightmares like Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Another of Lewis's six catches came when he was lined up wide to Brady's right, with Gronkowski and fellow TE Scott Chandler on the same side of the field—they cleared space for Lewis on a slant.
Same thing, more or less, on Lewis's 16-yard TD catch late in the first half. Gronkowski ran straight up the seam, pulling multiple Miami defenders; Lewis looped out of the backfield, uncovered, to the resulting open space.
Honestly, what is a defense supposed to do? The Dolphins made New England work for its rushing yards, and the D-line kept Brady under pressure for much of the night. Brady still threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns—one each to Gronkowski and Lewis, and two to Edelman.
The Patriots survived their Week 7 showdown against the Jets despite Lewis's absence from the lineup, but there is no question they are far more dynamic with him in there. Lewis is not really a Comeback Player of the Year candidate since he was starting almost from square one this year. (That award tends to be reserved for a player who had success, then slipped for whatever reason.)
But award or not, Lewis is enjoying a breakout season. He's just the latest needle-in-a-haystack find by the Patriots.
2. A reality check for Miami: Maybe more, depending on the injury report—brilliant pass rusher Cameron Wake was carted off with an Achilles injury and rookie WR Devante Parker followed with his own injury a few minutes later. Should Wake miss significant time, the Dolphins' hopes of storming back into the playoff mix might be over.
Outside of the injuries, though, the Dolphins can chalk this up for what it was: a predictable step back.
Miami had the benefit of catching Tennessee and Houston right after it replaced Joe Philbin with interim coach Dan Campbell. Visiting Foxborough on a short week was another animal entirely. The Patriots were ready for more or less everything Campbell's team threw at them, while the Dolphins regressed to some of their own, Philbin-inspired habits.
Most noticeable was the lack of involvement for RB Lamar Miller, who had a combined 354 total yards and three touchdowns in Campbell's first two games as head coach. Under Bill Belichick, New England has made a habit of erasing its opposition's go-to player, and that was the case with Miller on Thursday. He finished with just 15 yards rushing on nine carries, and the Dolphins all but abandoned the run by the midway point of the second quarter.
The lack of offensive balance thrust all the pressure back on QB Ryan Tannehill and his offensive line. Just as was the case in a three-game losing skid earlier, that's a recipe for disaster. Tannehill fired two bad interceptions as his line struggled to keep Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots' pass rush at bay.
Despite what Brady's numbers will say, the Dolphins' effort was better on the other side of the ball. Campbell still will be nowhere close to satisfied.
The Dolphins are not as good as they looked over the past two weeks. They're not as bad as this game, or Philbin's opening four-game stretch, made it seem. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Campbell's challenge now is to make sure this loss does not linger.
3. Again, the Patriots' defensive success began up front: While the New England secondary has held up better than most expected, the real explanation for what this defense has been able to do lies in its talent in the front seven. Just like the ever-changing offense, the Patriots' defense has enough athletes to keep offensive coordinators guessing.
Chandler Jones was a nuisance Thursday, as he usually is—he dropped Tannehill for two sacks. Later, both Dont'a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich wrapped up Tannehill behind the line. Then there's Jamie Collins, an omnipresent force moving sideline to sideline.
While Miami mostly lines up its four defensive linemen and pins its ears back, New England shifts its personnel and formations far more frequently. On one 3rd-and-13, the Patriots had no down linemen between the tackles—they put two pass-rushers wide and walked a linebacker up the middle.
The defending champs' third-down defense remains a work in progress. Entering Thursday, the Patriots ranked 28th in the league in that category, allowing a 43-percent conversion rate. Miami picked up a couple of long-yardage third downs early, too, before New England stiffened.
Overall, the defense is doing more than enough to give Brady freedom to do his thing.