AFC East Spin cycle: Patriots get ugly win, Dolphins aim for .500

Posted Dec. 24, 2012 @ 10:21 a.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

It wasn’t pretty for the AFC East’s top team, as the Patriots had to rally, then hang on for a 23-16 win over the Jaguars. In the only division game of the day, the Dolphins got revenge, besting the Bills 24-10. Greg McElroy’s first start didn’t go very well, as the Jets fell to the Chargers 27-17.

BILLS

What we learned: Whatever was working for the run defense from Weeks 11-14 stopped, or opponents figured it out. The Bills had gone four weeks in a row in which they allowed fewer than 90 rushing yards. After Seattle ran all over them in Week 15, the Dolphins rushed for 182 yards on Sunday. The Bills gave up big runs to rookie RB Lamar Miller and couldn’t stop Reggie Bush (three touchdowns) in the red zone. The offense didn’t help the cause though, as the Bills couldn’t get out of their own way. They lost three fumbles — Stevie Johnson lost his first fumble since 2010, and it came inside the red zone, Dorin Dickerson fumbled near midfield and Ryan Fitzpatrick coughed it up on a sack. Fitzpatrick also threw a pick to seal the win for Miami late in the fourth quarter. C.J. Spiller continued to prove his worth with a big day (138 yards rushing, 35 yards receiving), but you won’t win many games with four turnovers.

What’s in store next: The Bills, at 5-10, can only hope to tie last year’s mark of six wins, a big disappointment considering the high preseason expectations. Buffalo is also battling to avoid last place in the AFC East, and can avenge a Week One loss on Sunday against the Jets. It will be a key game for Chan Gailey, whose seat has gotten hotter over the past few weeks. If the Bills put up a spirited effort in a win, it could help his cause. One player who may be motivated is DE Mario Williams, who made headlines for a poor performance (one tackle, no sacks) vs. the Jets in Week One.

What the heck? In the preseason, Brad Smith and Dickerson were considered two potential X-factors in the Bills’ offense. Smith had a touchdown catch on Sunday, while Dickerson had four catches — he entered Sunday with only five on the season. For an offense lacking in pass catchers, it’s a bit too little, too late for those two to start contributing, unless it could be signs for next season.

DOLPHINS

What we learned: A Bengals victory eliminated the Dolphins from playoff contention, but they are still vying for a .500 record and second place in the division after a win over the Bills. The run game had another strong day, making up for a poor outing last time against the Bills. Miami rushed for 182 yards — their fifth 180-plus-yard rushing performance of the season. Rookie Lamar Miller had 10 carries for 73 yards, while Reggie Bush had three total touchdowns. Miller’s late-season success is a good sign, considering Bush could be playing elsewhere in 2013. Ryan Tannehill was interception-free for the fourth game in a row and has thrown five TD passes in his last three games. On defense, a Dolphins team that has been averse to takeaways had four on Sunday, recovering three fumbles and picking off a pass. S Reshad Jones continued his stellar season with his game-sealing pick at the goal line, and Cameron Wake added a strip-sack.

What’s in store next: Miami will be gunning for a .500 record in Gillette Stadium against the Patriots, who are still alive for a playoff bye. Last time these two teams met, the Dolphins kept things close thanks to a strong defensive performance in pressuring Tom Brady, and they’ll need to do that again on Sunday. Tannehill will need a much better game — he completed 44.8 percent of his passes in the loss. Miami needs to avoid a shootout, and could use some turnovers and big special-teams plays to pull off the upset. The Dolphins have not had eight wins since 2008.

What the heck? The turnover show was quite the anomaly for the Dolphins. They recovered three fumbles on Sunday, matching their total up to that point. It was the first time they recovered three fumbles since 2008 (ironically, against the Bills). Miami entered Sunday with 12 takeaways total, and got one-third of that in one day.

PATRIOTS

What we learned: Unlike the past two seasons, when the Patriots went into the playoffs with plenty of momentum from steamrolling opponents, they are stumbling. Coming off an emotional, physical loss in Week 15 to the 49ers, the Patriots struggled early against the Jaguars, and they needed an interception as time expired to seal a win against the league’s second-worst team. The O-line allowed three sacks and nine QB hits, as the Jaguars’ defensive front had success early. Jacksonville picked off Tom Brady twice — his second two-INT game in a row. The Patriots woke up at the end of the first half, scoring a touchdown on a classic Patriots drive. They then opened the second half with a field goal and took control at the start of the fourth quarter. The pass defense, without CB Alfonzo Dennard for the whole game and Aqib Talib for part of it, gave up 348 yards passing to Chad Henne, though it picked him off three times. Like we have seen from this team, the Patriots' defense made big plays when it needed to. You don’t expect a Brady-Belichick team to be unprepared, but the slow start indicated that the Jaguars caught the Patriots off guard.

What’s in store next: After a scare in Week 16, the Patriots can head to the playoffs with momentum by scoring a win over the Dolphins, a team that played New England close in the teams' first meeting. The O-line will get a good test from Cameron Wake and company to help prepare them for the playoffs. If the Texans and/or Broncos lose, the Patriots can get a bye with a win. Miami is out of the playoff hunt, but wants a .500 record badly and will come to play on Sunday.

What the heck? One example of the Patriots’ offense not being in rhythm is TE Aaron Hernandez’s stat line. One of Brady’s favorite targets, Hernandez had only one catch for 13 yards on five targets, the same amount of receptions as TE Daniel Fells and one fewer than TE Michael Hoomanawanui, two tight ends better known for their blocking. Getting Rob Gronkowski back will help the entire offense, and it should also open some things up for Hernandez.

JETS

What we learned: Greg McElroy and the Jets’ offense had a rude welcome in their final home game from the Chargers’ defense, which sacked McElroy a whopping 11 times and hit him 16 times. The run game did not have any success either, with Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell combining for 17 carries for 35 yards (2.1-yard average). McElroy made a few nice throws, though the biggest play of the game came from Jeremy Kerley, who completed a 42-yard pass to Clyde Gates out of the ‘Wildcat.” The Jets got out to a 14-7 lead in the first quarter but couldn’t muster much of anything after that. McElroy was picked off once, which led to a Chargers field goal. On defense, Antonio Cromartie got beat on a touchdown pass to Danario Alexander, and Eric Smith suffered the same fate on a scoring play to Antonio Gates. The Jets put pressure on Philip Rivers (four sacks, six hits), but couldn’t induce one of the game’s most turnover-prone signalcallers to cough it up. The second half got ugly, with McElroy getting strip-sacked on the second-to-last-possession, and sacked on the team’s final possession to end things.

What’s in store next: The Jets hope to stay out of the AFC East cellar in their regular-season finale against the Bills. Gang Green walloped Buffalo 48-28 in Week One, led by some big defensive plays and Mark Sanchez, who threw a pair of touchdown passes to Stephen Hill. Hill is on injured reserve, and Sanchez has been benched. The key in this game, as it will be for Buffalo, is watching how the Jets play for Rex Ryan in this final game. Last year’s finale was a disaster — a similar result this year would not be good for Ryan.

What the heck? The NFL’s epitome of “What the heck?” Tim Tebow is in the news, again. He got passed over by McElroy to be the starting quarterback, then rumors swirled Saturday that Tebow would be a Jaguar in 2013. Tebow did not play out of the “Wildcat,” with Kerley taking those snaps, and reports indicated after the game that it was Tebow who wanted no part of the gimmick after not getting the call to start at quarterback. It’s been an ugly season for Tebow, and the trade has looked worse and worse as the season has gone along, but this recent report was un-Tebow-like, as he has always maintained that he will do whatever it takes for the team. One can’t blame Tebow for being frustrated with his role this season, but the Jets have enough drama, and Tebow-related drama brings it to another level in terms of distractions. The Tebow Era with the Jets can't seem to end soon enough. 

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