They ended with a winning, 9-8 record.
But it has to be asked: How much bigger would this game have been if they’d played this way last Sunday in Tennessee?
It was a game without consequences. The Dolphins season still is over after beating New England, 33-24. The Patriots still go to the playoffs with their 10-7 record.
Here are 10 thoughts on the game:
1. Stat of the game: The Dolphins had a season-high 195 yards rushing on 43 carries. They averaged 85.8 rushing yards entering Sunday, ranking them 31st in the league. Duke Johnson (see No. 6) rushed for 24 times for 117 yards and a touchdown. The Dolphins changed the offensive line with undrafted rookie Robert Jones starting in place of Jesse Davis at right tackle. The Patriots didn’t have a great rushing defense, ranked 21st in giving up 119.3 yards a game on the ground entering Sunday. Still, that rushing total?
2. In Sunday’s only game of consequence for the Dolphins, San Francisco rallied from down 17-0 to beat the Los Angeles Rams. That was unfortunate, considering the Dolphins own San Francisco’s pick and it’s going to the playoffs. So the 49ers’ first-round pick won’t be lower than 19th depending on how the playoffs play out. The Dolphins first-round pick, owned by Philadelphia, is 15th. All these changed picks were from the Dolphins trading down from No. 3 to No. 12 last spring before trading up to No. 6 for Jaylen Waddle. Speaking of whom …
3. Jaylen Waddle broke Anquan Boldin’s record for 101 rookie receptions with his third catch on the first drive. His fourth catch was for a a TD. Bill Belichick took care of him after that, changing coverage so Waddle had one catch the rest of the day, ending with five catches for 27 yards. The NFL’s never been big on defining numbers in the manner baseball has been, so the move from the 16- to the 17-game season isn’t some asterisk-maker for me on the numbers. Waddle, by all accounts, had a great rookie year. Now for the advanced conversation: Is he a No. 1 receiver? And, yes, it matters when you pick him No. 6 in the draft. Boldin was a great slot receiver, but Larry Fitzgerald was the No. 1 receiver. Waddle can be a great slot receiver — a vital position. But the classic No. 1 receiver is the one who opens up offenses. Ja’Marr Chase is the rookie in Cincinnati with a quarterback to match. We’ll have to see how Waddle’s career plays out to see if that’s who he is in coming years.
4. Stat of the Game II: Tua had 54 yard passing on the opening touchdown drive, completing 7-of-7 passes. For the rest of the game, he completed 8-of-15 passes for 55 yards. The good news was the Patriots dropped the two interceptions he would’ve thrown. The bad news: Waddle dropped a would-be 85-yard touchdown on a quick slant. Tua, though, did run for two important first downs, including on third-and-8 with less than two minutes to play.
5. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones’ first pass Sunday turned into a pick-6 for Xavien Howard. That stretched the Dolphins lead to 14-0 midway through the first quarter. It also added to why Howard was my choice for the team MVP. Waddle won. Again, he had a great season. But Howard’s constantly taking top receivers one-on-one, allowing the rest of the defense to do aggressive things. Sure, he got beat some. Every cornerback does. But he won the first Patriots game by himself by stripping running back Damien Harris at the 9-yard line and falling on the fumble when they could kick a field goal for the win. He also had five interceptions and another forced fumble and recovery (a big play in the Baltimore win).
6. Easy decision this offseason: Pick up defensive tackle Christian Wilkins’ fifth-year contract option while working on a long-term deal. He got praised this year. It wasn’t enough. He had seven tackles, a sack and a tipped pass Sunday. But here’s the question: When was the last time a defensive tackle nearly led the team in tackles? He finished second with 89 tackles. That’s remarkable. Come on, a defensive tackle? Defensive player of the year Aaron Donald was fourth on the Los Angeles Rams entering Sunday with 77 tackles. Wilkins has made steps each year, and he made an advanced stride this season into becoming a force in the line. Give the man some money.
7. The good story of Duke Johnson answers both how much difference a running back can make and why teams don’t over-invest in them. He ran 24 times for 117 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, including a long of 27 yards. That gave him two games over 100 in the past four — meaning, since he began starting for Miami. He had 70 carries for 330 yards. That’s a 4.7-yard average. Myles Gaskin, the starter much of the season, had a 3.6-yard average. Does anyone think the blocking was that much better for Johnson? That’s the difference a good back can make. It also tells how poor the personnel decisions have been at running back the past couple of years. Finally, it explains why teams don’t over-invest in running backs. Of the top five running backs in the league this year, only Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris was a first-round pick. Last week, Tennessee’s D’onta Foreman ran for 132 yards against the Dolphins after being signed in November. Johnson, a third-round pick by Cleveland in 2015, was cut by Houston this year. He was put on the Dolphins practice squad in November. Now he’s their best running back.
8. Tua versus Mac Jones. This is one of the interesting stories this season. There’s no telling exactly who either will be just yet. Tua, ending his second year, completed on Sunday. Jones made the game’s big mistake with the pick-6 by Howard and completed 20-of-30 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown. Here was the comparison entering Sunday:
- Tua played 12 games, throwing for 2,544 yards with a 7.0-yard average, 67.8 completion percentage and 15 touchdowns against 10 interceptions;
Jones played 16 games, throwing for 3,540 yards with a 7.2-yard average, 67.6 completion percentage and 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
9. Quick hits on a weird final Sunday of regular-season games:
- Mike Gesicki entered Sunday needing three catches and 34 yards to set team records for tight ends in a season. He had two catches for 22 yards. His up-and-down usage is one of the mysteries of this year;
The big consequence to Sunday’s game for New England was defensive tackle Christian Barmore had to be helped off the field at the end with an apparent leg injury. They go into the playoffs without a good part of their defense;
Indianapolis blew their playoff berth with a loss at lowly Jacksonville in a game that says the Colts aren’t a threat to anyone with Carson Wentz at quarterback;
Buffalo won the AFC East with a win over the Jets. But do they look trustworthy in the playoffs?
10. My column Sunday on the Patriots schooling the Dolphins on rebuilding brought some surprise reaction. One prevalent one was the Patriots didn’t rebuild, because they had eight players opt out from COVID last season and just re-inserted them this year.
Let’s say what happened. Only two of those opt-out players are back with the Patriots: Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, a star, and Brandon Boldin, a third-string running back and special-teams player. The Patriots have two starters who were on the team in 2019 — center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason (I’m not counting Ted Karras, a center on the 2019 when Andrews was injured. He played for the Dolphins in 2020 and is back with the Patriots as a guard this year).
Also: A couple of starters like running back Damien Harris (out Sunday) and receiver Jakobi Meyers were backups then. On defense, the Patriots have two starters from 2019: Hightower and safety Devin McCourty. If you want, you can add linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was a Dolphins in 2020 and is listed as a backup for the Patriots now.
The bottom-line: The Patriots underwent as extensive a rebuild as the Dolphins, but didn’t trade away talent for draft picks. They really didn’t have a lot of talent to trade when you look at it. Still, they were out of the playoffs one year and were in two Super Bowls (winning two) since the last time the Dolphins made the playoffs in 2016.
Source: Berkshire mont