This time it wasn't New England quarterback Tom Brady that led to the Miami Dolphins' undoing. This time it was two big special teams mistakes, both in the punting game, a couple of missed opportunities through the air, and a late-game drive that killed the Dolphins. There was also a questionable coaching decision by Miami's Joe Philbin and his defensive staff.
New England won the AFC East division title Sunday with a 23-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. The biggest crowd of the season (72,114) watched as Miami kept the game close but lost it on a lengthy fourth-quarter drive that showed the expertise of the Patriots.
"That was our best drive of the day," New England coach Bill Belichick said.
Miami (5-7) absorbed a crushing blow to its scant playoff hopes with the loss. Miami thinks its miscues are correctable.
"I know we're better than that," defensive tackle Paul Soliai said.
New England (9-3), leading, 20-13, got the ball with 8:28 remaining and kept it for 7:18 before getting a 20-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to take a 23-13 lead. During that 16-play, 77-yard drive the Patriots ran the ball 12 times for 53 yards. Running back Stevan Ridley (19 carries, 71 yards) had 10 carries for 46 yards.
Philbin opted to keep two of his best defensive linemen, ends Jared Odrick and Cam Wake, on the bench for much of the drive, opting to go instead with rookies Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby because they're better run-stuffers and Philbin said he wanted to keep Odrick and Wake within their play count. It was a risky call that might have backfired.
"We were shutting them down early in the game," Vernon said of the Patriots' running game, "and when it came down to it, when we needed to get them off the field, it just didn't happen."
Few expected this to be a close game in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins, who ended a three-game losing streak with last week's victory over Seattle, did a lot of the things they needed to do to win. They put pressure on Brady (24-for-40, 238 yards, one touchdown, one interception), they took care of the ball (only one turnover), they ran the ball, and they stopped the run.
Miami recorded four sacks, the most any team has had against Brady all season. The Dolphins only committed one turnover, a lost fumble by quarterback Ryan Tannehill (13-for-29, 186 yards passing, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions).
The Dolphins also had to overcome missing personnel. Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long was lost to a triceps injury in the first quarter and didn't return. So the Dolphins switched rookie right tackle Jonathan Martin to the left side and inserted Nate Garner as right tackle. But that didn't seem to matter as much as the Dolphins' mistakes.
Miami made two costly errors in the punting game. On the Dolphins' first possession punter Brandon Fields twice mishandled a low snap from center John Denney. Fields was tackled at the Patriots' 12-yard line. From there it only took five plays before running back Stevan Ridely crashed into the end zone from two yards out for a 7-0 Patriots lead.
Then came the other punting game error. Safety Jimmy Wilson was called for roughing the kicker when he ran into Zoltan Mesko. That set up New England at its own 44-yard line and they scored seven-yard pass from Brady to wide receiver Wes Welker (12 receptions, 103 yards, one touchdown) for a 14-3 lead. Both of the Patriots' touchdowns came after punting game errors.
Miami's offense also contributed a couple of errors. Tannehill twice missed wide receiver Brian Hartline, once overthrowing him and once underthrowing him. Hertline would have had a touchdown on the overthrow.
"It was a bad throw," Tannehill said.
It was another costly mistake, and another costly loss.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times