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5 takeaways from the Patriots-Dolphins

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  December 30, 2012 11:03 PM

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Patriots defensive lineman Justin Francis was flying high after recording three sacks against the Miami Dolphins Sunday. (Matthew J. Lee / Globe Staff)

FOXBOROUGH -- The season has come to a close and the Patriots are the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.

After a 28-0 pillow fight with the Miami Dolphins, I think we're all ready for a little better competition. But before we move on, let's looks at some of the key sticking points from Week 17's matchup and in extension the season in review.

1) Rob Gronkowski's return reminds me of … -- Super Bowl XLVI. If you recall, Gronkowski returned from an ankle injury suffered in the third quarter of the AFC championship against the Baltimore Ravens. He left the game, and afterward the status of his right ankle was the most guarded secret in Foxborough. Two weeks later in the Super Bowl, he was a shell of himself. He was targeted three times, catching two passes for 26 yards. By all means, he was a decoy. But even as a decoy, he was a worthy adversary. On Sunday, Gronkowski caught two passes for 42 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Gronkowski was again a shell of himself, hesitant to use his big left club when engaging defenders, running around holding his arm low to his body as if it were some billy club he was trying to protect. And yet he still was able to get open across the middle and catch a couple of passes. With a couple of weeks to get healthy, we only suspect he'll be tad less shy to get tangled up. But until then, the status of that left forearm will be the most closely guarded secret in Foxborough.

"It felt good," Gronkowski said of getting hit for the first time. "I mean, I haven't got hit in awhile. It's been a couple of weeks, about six weeks since I got hit. It's football. I was ready to get hit, I was ready to get knocked down. So you just gotta get back up and get back in the huddle. It felt good to be back out there."

Thank goodness nothing bad happened.

2) Patriots defensive line shows its depth -- It may have felt like garbage time against the Dolphins Sunday, but we all actually got to witness the depth the Patriots have on their defensive line. They picked up a season-high seven sacks against the Dolphins with undrafted rookie Justin Francis leading the way with three. Brandon Deaderick, a backup defensive tackle, got his first sack of the season in the finale. Trevor Scott (1 sack) got in on the action, as did Vince Wilfork (1 sack). The output was a welcoming sign considering one of the most consistent pass rushers, Rob Ninkovich, left the game with a hip injury. Francis has been working hard to get to this point, impressing early in training camp and then continued to work hard after being inactive for the first four games of the season.

"It's just a blessing of God," Francis said. "It's been a long journey and the journey continues."

The Patriots have to account for the loss of Ninkovich, which will certainly be a blow. But with Scott, Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham, and now Justin Francis emerging, the Patriots appear to be in good hands.

"I think we have a lot of depth defensively, on the d-line," Scott said. "We have a lot of different things we can do. And that's why we're so deep, because everybody is a little bit different. So we just try to put everyone in a situation to make plays.

"We don't know what's going on with Rob yet, but it's definitely a big loss. If I am that guy that's going to be going in, then I'm going to take it full steam ahead."

3) Scoreboard watching -- The Patriots did their best not to do any scoreboard watching on Sunday, playing off the impact of the Colts' win over the Houston Texans. As soon as Houston lost, the Patriots had an opportunity to snag a first-round playoff bye with a win over the Dolphins. So who knows if there was a separate game plan afoot if the Texans had managed to win their game. There wasn't even a ton of excitement about getting the bye. As Bill Belichick put it, "we wrapped up the division a month ago."

4) Secondary up in the air -- Aqib Talib didn't play even though he was active. He's been dealing with a hip injury. Alfonzo Dennard missed the game with a knee injury. Without either of the two on the field, the Patriots put Devin McCourty at left corner and went back to Kyle Arrington at right corner. Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory played the safeties. It's certainly a workable group, the original starting quartet, but there's a reason why the Patriots' defense has changed. Two weeks will mean a lot for the health and prospects of Talib and Dennard.

"I'm just day to day," Talib said postgame. "I'm trying to get better everyday. I'm going to be in here early tomorrow, try to get a little bit better. We got a little bit of time now."

5) Stats in review -- This season, the Patriots have shown a staggering dominance on offense. The team now owns the NFL record for first downs in a season (444). They finished with 67 touchdowns for the fourth most all-time and recorded an NFL leading 557 points. Needless to say, the players had impressive years in contributing to this record-setting offense. Tom Brady passed for 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. He had a 98.7 quarterback rating. He passed Drew Bledsoe for ninth all-time passing with 44,8-6 yards and passed Vinny Testaverde on the all-time completion list for eight, with 3,798.

Meanwhile, running back Stevan Ridley's 1,263 yards this season were the fourth best in franchise history. He's the fifth Patriots running back to ever get to 1,200, joining Corey Dillon, Curtis Martin, Jim Nance, and Craig James. His 12 touchdowns were two off Martin's franchise record.

Wes Welker had another great season, catching 118 passes for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns. His 1,354 yards are fourth best in Patriots history, behind only himself in 2011, Randy Moss, and Stanley Morgan.

Brandon Lloyd finished with 74 catches for 911 yards and four touchdowns.

And in only 11 games, Gronkowski had another stellar season with 55 receptions for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Those are all first-rate numbers, spread around nicely in an offense that is the envy of the NFL. It's certainly not in their nature, but the Patriots would be well in their right to boast about it.

@zuriberry

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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