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NFL AM: TNF Takeaways- Juggernaut Patriots March On

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After the New York Jets played them tight for most of 60 minutes last week, it seemed there might be a few cracks in the armor of the mighty New England Patriots, waiting to be exposed. But on Thursday, the Pats made an emphatic statement to the contrary.

An opening drive touchdown set the tone and New England dominated from wire-to-wire in a 36-7 victory over the Miami Dolphins that made the Patriots the first NFL team to 7-0 on the season. The win also raised doubts once again about who, if anyone, might be able to stop the Tom Brady revenge tour this season.

“Guys, I think, did a great job tonight on a short week,” Brady said after the game. “We put a lot into it. It was an intense three days of preparation, and it felt like we were really ready to go tonight. And we went out and executed pretty well.”

How’s that for an understatement?

Brady put on a clinic in excellence against Miami, completing 26-of-38 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. He now leads the league with 20 touchdown passes in seven games and carries an absurd 20:1 touchdown to interception ratio. His first scoring pass of the night on Thursday came less than five minutes into the contest.

The Dolphins deferred to New England on the coin toss, hoping to open the game with a defensive stop and build some momentum early. But Brady took that as a challenge and dashed their hopes almost instantly. The key play on the drive was a 3rd-and-16 from the New England 26, where Brady found Dion Lewis for a gain of 17 to move the chains. If Miami had been able to get off the field there, perhaps the game takes a different tenor. Instead, three plays later, Rob Gronkowski took a short pass from Brady 47 yards to the house to make it 7-0 just four minutes and change into the game.

From that point on, the Patriots had control and though their offense briefly sputtered, the New England defense did enough to allow them to keep getting points. They scored their next five points — a safety and a field goal — directly off Dolphins mistakes.

“They did such a great job to really allow us time to start executing better,” Brady said of the defense. “We’d go forward, then backward. We just weren’t as clean as we needed to be. It was tough to string together enough plays to score points. But every time we punted the ball, the defense held and we got the ball back.”

Miami managed to hang in and only trailed by 12 with halftime approaching. But when the New England offense got the ball back with 1:41 remaining in the half near midfield thanks to a great return by Julian Edelman, Brady put the hammer down in the two-minute drill. He needed just five plays to take the Pats the rest of the way, and even after a touchdown pass to Edelman was nullified by offensive pass interference on Gronkowski, Brady was undeterred. He simply found Lewis over the middle on the next play and the shifty running back did the rest on the way to a 16-yard touchdown to make it 19-0.

In the second half, New England poured it on, complementing their high-octane offense with one of their best defensive performances of the year, particularly against the run. A Miami rushing offense that had piled up nearly 250 yards rushing against Houston last week managed just 15 yards on the ground Thursday night. That was a recipe for failure that forced quarterback Ryan Tannehill to throw the ball 44 times.

Tannehill did manage to lead a touchdown drive in the early stages of the third quarter to pull the Dolphins back within 12 points, 19-7. But New England answered with a field goal to create a little more distance. Then, on the second play of the third quarter, the Patriots defense forced one more Tannehill mistake, an interception by Duron Harmon deep in Dolphins territory. Three plays later, Brady landed the knockout blow with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Edelman that made it 29-7. Brady would toss another touchdown to Edelman later in the fourth, completing a historic evening. The four-touchdown, zero-interception games was the 19th of Brady’s career, breaking a tie with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees for most such games all time.

It was Brady’s second such game this year and both have come in Thursday night prime time statement games. It’s perhaps fitting that after the entire NFL offseason revolved around the league attempting to tear Brady down that he’s played his best in the spotlight. He’s now a perfect 9-0 in Thursday games. His and his team’s dominance of the Dolphins once again raises the question of who is going to stop this Patriots team on their 2015 revenge tour?

The prospects look bleak over the next few weeks. The Pats get to feast on the weak NFC East over the next two weeks with games against the Redskins and Giants. New York has been a postseason thorn in Brady’s side, but he hasn’t had a problem dispatching them in the regular season before. The real tests come after that with the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos on New England’s slate for weeks 11 and 12. But both of those games are in prime time, when Brady is at his best, so it’s hard not to expect more of the same from the Patriots going forward.

MOMENTUM DASHED FOR DAN’S DOLPHINS

The pristine 2-0 mark for the Dolphins in the Dan Campbell era had some thinking upset entering Thursday night’s contest, but that shine faded real fast once Miami got tested.

Campbell made some questionable moves on Thursday night, the first being to defer to New England after winning the coin toss. Possession and an opening drive score would be just what the Dolphins desired to keep their momentum going. Instead, they got disappointment when the defense failed to stop Brady on that key 3rd down early, and a disheartening touchdown by Gronkowski just a few plays later put them behind the 8-ball from the jump.

That’s not to blame the entirety of the game on that coin toss decision. Heck, if the Pats do get that third down stop and turn the ensuing possession into points, Campbell looks like a genius once more. But falling behind early certainly didn’t help of the underdog Dolphins.

Pressed on from there, Miami looked a lot tighter from there than they had at any point over the previous two weeks. That type of pressure creates mistakes, like an errant snap that flies over Tannehill’s head in the end zone, forcing him to take a safety, or a bad pass that is easily intercepted by Logan Ryan. Both of those plays came during a period of time in the first half when the Miami defense was doing its job and holding the vaunted Patriots offense at bay. But they could only be expected to hold on for so long.

Especially when Miami’s offensive drives were so short and inefficient, giving the defense little time to catch their breath. Perhaps the most questionable decision made by Campbell and his staff was the move to abandon their running game, which had carried them at times in each of their last two victories. Your chances of winning go down significantly when you run the ball 11 times all night.

Sure, New England had effectively managed to bottle Lamar Miller up early, but you have to keep going back to the well there as long as the game is within reach, and for the Dolphins, it was just that for the first three quarters. But instead of having some balance, the offense became a predictable run-pass-pass-punt, and Miami stood no chance of getting past New England that way.

“You have to play good football in all three phases when you play the New England Patriots,” Campbell said after the game. “They’ve always been that way.”

For most of the first half, Miami played well in just one phase and by the end of the night, they were down to none.

They did get something to build off on their opening drive of the second half, with a seven-play, 80-yard drive led by Tannehill, complete with three big pass plays and capped by a one-yard touchdown run by Miller. But they simply weren’t creative enough on offense to sustain the momentum. After a Patriots field goal, their next drive stalled when Miller was stuffed on a 3rd-and-1 run and that was when the Dolphins really gave up on the run.

Though the defense held the Patriots off the board on the ensuing possession, Miami’s next drive was five straight passes. The last of those was another back-breaking pick by Tannehill on the second play of the fourth quarter and from there the floodgates opened.

Making matters worse for Miami, Cameron Wake, perhaps their best defensive player, suffered an Achilles injury in the second half that could set them back even further. The Dolphins didn’t have much information on Wake after the game, but he was on crutches with the foot heavily wrapped after the game.

“We’ll find out on Cam. If something happens there, that can hurt us. I don’t know if, what or how long it will be, Campbell said. “We’ll see what happens with this. But if you lost a guy like Cam, it would hurt. Not only is he a leader, but he’s a very productive player. I would feel horrible, and I know his teammates would, too, if that’s the case.”

Miami will have to get better up front than they were against New England, on both sides of the field. With or without Wake, and find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback. That’s the only way they’re going to start creating turnovers. They had just two sacks on Thursday and one of those came from Wake, who now has seven in his last three games. If he’s out, that could be a significant setback for the Miami defense.

On offense, they need to get back to running the football. Lamar Miller looked like a star in the two games prior to Thursday’s debacle, and given the opponent and the circumstances, it’s fair to consider Thursday night a fluke for him. Campbell and the team as a whole have to hope the same is true for them. All the newness and the subsequent momentum from their two-game win streak is long gone. Now it’s time to see what they’re made of.

COWBOYS’ RANDLE UNDER NFL INVESTIGATION

Last Sunday, despite a loss to the Giants, there was one bright spot for the Dallas Cowboys, a banner day for veteran running back Darren McFadden in place of an injured Joseph Randle.

Now it seems the Cowboys will have to rely on McFadden a lot more than expected.

Randle, who exited last week’s game with an oblique injury, missed Cowboys practice this week to attend to a personal matter and it was revealed on Thursday just what that matter was. Randle is currently under investigation by the NFL for a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy stemming from an offseason incident involving the mother of his child.

Randle was arrested in February for marijuana possession after police responded to a domestic violence call, but it’s the other circumstances of that incident that have piqued the interest of the NFL. The police report from that day alleges that Randle threatened his mother’s son with a gun. The woman later filed a protective order against Randle alleging that Randle shattered her windshield with his fist and the shattered glass rained down on his son and the mother’s friend. Charges from the incident were later dropped. But it was Randle’s second run-in with the law in less than a year. He was notably arrested last season for shoplifting and received six months probation.

That incident put him on thin ice with the NFL and now that the league has finally gotten around to investigating this one, it seems a suspension may be in the offing. With McFadden thriving and Randle’s baggage growing by the day, his tenure with the Cowboys may be nearing its end as well.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys