Five things we learned from the Patriots 23-16 win in Miami

Published On December 3, 2012 | By Tanya Ray Fox

The Patriots sealed the deal in the AFC East this week, clinching the division with a 23-16 win over the Dolphins on Sunday afternoon. The win wasn’t the prettiest, but that’s the way it goes more often than not for the Pats in Miami.

While New England was the first team in the league to clinch a division win and spot in the playoffs, there is still a lot for them to work out moving forward. Brady had an uncharacteristically tough day in Miami, completing less than half of his 40 passes and throwing just his fourth interception this season.

Part of that was due to constant pressure all day courtesy of the Dolphins’ defensive line, including one sack each from linebackers Cameron Wake and Koa Misi and defensive tackle Paul Soliai. Safety Reshad Jones also had a huge day against the entire Pats offense, accumulating 10 tackles and a fourth sack.

Despite their struggles in a grimy win, there were bright spots as well; particularly for the Pats’ pass defense and in the performances from Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. For more on the game and what it taught us as the Patriots head toward their toughest test of the season next week in Houston, let’s take a look at the five things we learned.

1. Aaron Hernandez is healthy enough to compensate in Gronkowski’s absence. Last week’s abysmal 37 yard performance against the Jets didn’t inspire great confidence that the oft-injured tight end was healthy enough to step up the way he is capable of, after returning to his first game in a month. This week was a different story, as Hernandez looked more like his best-self. Not only did he catch 8 balls for 97 yards, he looked more mobile than he has looked all season. His quick cuts to gain extra yards are what set him apart from other tight ends, making him more than capable of playing like a true wide receiver.

With the Patriots likely without Rob Gronkowski through the rest of the regular season, it’s inspiring to see Hernandez have a big game. Now that he has proven he is physically capable, he’ll have to prove he is also mentally ready to do it again against much stiffer competition next week.

Just imagine if they could both be healthy for the playoffs…

2. The Patriots secondary continues to hold its own. The Dolphins had just one touchdown on Sunday afternoon; a 2-yard run by Ryan Tannehill.  Otherwise, their offense was a mess. It’s easy to say that any secondary could have shut down Tannehill, but the Patriot’s unit has been one of the worst in the league over the past two years. They have been known to allow third-tier quarterbacks like Tannehill exploit them on huge plays. Yesterday, they kept him to 186 yards, many of which were accumulated on a long drive at the end of the game. Aqib Talib’s strength and speed down the seam has been a noticeable improvement for the Pats, as has Devin McCourty’s move to playing more at safety. All in all, it’s a great time for this group to be coming together.

3. Holes in the offensive line are starting to show . Tom Brady was visibly uncomfortable in the pocket all afternoon, accounting for many overthrown deep balls. He was hit seven times and sacked four times, and it seemed that no one could stop Reshad Jones whose speed off the edge made him a steady presence in Brady’s face. Star guard Logan Mankins has missed six games this season with a persistent ankle/calf injury. Key pieces Dan Connolly, Nick McDonald and Sebastian Vollmer have all also had injury issues that have limited their playing time and kept them out of games. If the line cannot get healthy, Brady’s performance is bound to suffer.

4. Something is wrong with Stephen Gostkowski. You hate to give the kicker of all positions a hard time, as they are absolutely never the reason a team is a good team or a bad team. But they can be, and often times are, the reason a team can win or lose in the playoffs. Just ask Bill Belichick about his Super Bowl wins. So the fact that Gostowski has missed a field goal in each of their last three games is concerning, particularly because they have all been well within his usual range. It’s tough to picture a deep run for any Patriots team without some clutch kicking, so if there is something wrong with Gostkowski – be it mental or physical – that could definitely impact them in tight game situations.

5. The Patriots need to get back to incorporating the run early and often.New England’s offense has been arguably the most consistently balanced in the NFL this year, due to the breakout performance of Steven Ridley as a dependable starter and with help from Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and the currently suspended Brandon Bolden. The first half of Sunday’s game inMiami featured very little of their diversified offense, with Brady forcing awkward passes rather than handing it off. Ridley and company ended up gaining 108 yards for the Pats on the ground, so it’s safe to say that giving the running backs their touches is still working.

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