1. The Patriots changed personnel in their hybrid 4-3/3-4 base defense for the first two series in the third quarter, subbing out rookie Jamie Collins at outside linebacker, moving Chandler Jones from defensive end to that outside linebacker spot, and inserting newly signed veteran Andre Carter at defensive end/tackle. The thought seemed to be that it would make them a bit stouter against the run. Furthermore, they also introduced a three-cornerback base defense that we first saw this season against the Buccaneers. The other personnel-specific change came in the nickel package, with rookie cornerback Logan Ryan coming on in place of Marquice Cole. When the words “halftime adjustments” are mentioned in the Patriots' turnaround in the third quarter, those are the main ones that come to mind.
2. When did the game officially turn? We'd argue it began on the Dolphins' opening drive of the third quarter, as they faced a second-and-2 from the New England 19. Holding a 17-3 lead at the time and the Dolphins' defense having just forced a three-and-out in which the Patriots' offense looked uninspiring once again, quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw slightly behind receiver Mike Wallace, who found an opening in the Patriots' zone coverage down the right sideline at the 3-yard line. Not a perfect throw, but it seems fair to say that's a catch that a $12-million-per-season receiver should make. On the next play, defensive end Rob Ninkovich came free around right tackle Jonathan Martin, who instead blocked down on tackle Joe Vellano, for an initial pressure that Dont'a Hightower cleaned up for a sack. Going into the wind, that turned what would have been a 37-yard field goal into a 46-yarder and Caleb Sturgis clanked it off the right upright. The Patriots then scored touchdowns on their next two possessions. If Wallace makes that catch, we might have a different story.
3. It's rare to see left guard Logan Mankins beaten twice by the same player for a sack, but that's what happened on the team's first drive. Once again, Mankins' technique was a bit off as he lunged out at Jared Odrick at the snap, with Odrick eluding his initial attempt to get his hands on him and then surging by Mankins' outside shoulder to bring down Tom Brady. Odrick, a late first-round pick in 2010 out of Penn State, has impressed us in recent weeks. Meanwhile, this wasn't Mankins' best game. On Brady's 14-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson, Mankins was late in picking up blitzing linebacker Philip Wheeler as Brady's right hand took another shot. Great throw by Brady to hang in as the pressure was closing on him.
4. In last week's “Bruschi's Breakdown,” the struggles of Dolphins running backs in pass protection was noted by ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi. “In terms of Daniel Thomas, if you get him in one-on-one pass protection, that's a quarterback sack waiting to happen,” Bruschi wrote. It appeared to be Thomas who blew the blocking assignment on Ryan's corner blitz that produced a strip sack midway through the quarter. Thomas stepped into the middle of the line and didn't block anyone as Ryan came in untouched off the defensive right side into the area Thomas vacated. That's a critical error and highlights how the Dolphins' pass protection issues, which are considerable, extend beyond the offensive line.
5. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had a quiet day on the stat sheet (two catches, 27 yards in 33-of-65 snaps), but his presence was still felt in the red zone. The Patriots' red zone offense has been better the last two weeks and Gronkowski is a major reason why, as evidenced by the 8-yard Tom Brady-to-Danny Amendola connection that preceded Brandon Bolden's 2-yard touchdown run. The play won't show up on the stat sheet but Gronkowski drew significant attention as he released off the right side of the line, creating a sizable opening underneath for Amendola, who had shaken safety Jimmy Wilson after coming in motion from left to right before the snap. Not good coverage by Wilson, but what stood out more than anything from this perspective was how Gronkowski drew two defenders and also created a bit of traffic for Wilson to get where he needed to be in his loose coverage of Amendola.
6. Big blocks on Brandon Bolden's 2-yard touchdown run from Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman. Those are also the types of things that can go unnoticed, but they helped Bolden get to the edge. Edelman's block, in particular, ties to the idea that Patriots' receivers are aggressive in that area of the game. Receivers coach Chad O'Shea seems to do a nice job with the team's receivers in that area.
7. The third-and-5 holding penalty on Dolphins cornerback Dimitri Patterson late in the quarter, which extended the drive in which the Patriots went ahead 20-17, seemed questionable at best. While Patterson had his hands on receiver Aaron Dobson, it looked more as if Dobson fell down than him being inhibited by a hold. Likewise, the holding penalty on left tackle Nate Solder on the next play, which nullified a 30-yard touchdown pass, was equally questionable. They ultimately canceled each other out. Like the players themselves, and those writing on the game, the officials aren't going to get it right all the time.
8. Bill Belichick preaches situational football and his timeout at the end of the third quarter, with the wind in mind, turned out to be a smart decision along those lines. It ultimately allowed Stephen Gostkowski to kick a 48-yard field goal with the wind at his back, and also kick off in the same direction to create solid field position for the team entering the final quarter. For more on the times Belichick learned about managing the game with the wind in mind, check out his comments from his Monday conference call. He credits Bill Parcells.