The NFL never fails to deliver a timely stunner. A week filled with enthralling contests and meaningful results was capped off with what might have been the most stunning result of the year. The previously 10-2 New England Patriots fell to the division-rival Miami Dolphins on Monday night in what was nothing short of a stunner.
The Patriots had won eight straight games. The Dolphins were losers in five of their preceding six contests. Yet, it wasn't just the final score of 27-20 going in favor of Miami that was utterly shocking, it was how it happened. Make no mistake: this was an authoritative, comprehensive win by the Dolphins in a game they controlled throughout.
Upsets of this magnitude aren't born of just result. It takes a full-on team effort to take down New England and the Dolphins got just that. The Dolphins got just that with each phase of the team taking it to New England, including perhaps the best performance of the 2017 season from Jay Cutler. However, three factors loomed large throughout the game in their efforts to take down the longtime owners of the AFC East crown.
Some segments of the football world were outright shocked when the Dolphins flipped running back Jay Ajayi to the Philadelphia Eagles for a mere Day 3 draft pick prior to the trade deadline. After all, Ajayi is still a young back who rushed for over 1,200 yards in 2016 with several outright dominant games along the way. Perhaps most puzzling was that Miami didn't appear to have a direct replacement on the roster. As it turns out, they may not have just had a replacement for Ajayi waiting in the wings, but a tangible upgrade.
Since taking over as the clear-cut starting back following Ajayi's ouster and a serious injury to fellow backup Damien Williams, third-year runner Kenyan Drake has been outstanding. Drake followed up a 26-touch, 141-yard outing against Denver in Week 13 with a 30-touch decimation of New England on Monday Night Football where he totaled 193 scrimmage yards.
It was impossible to overlook how dominant Drake was in space against the Patriots, routinely making multiple defenders miss and shedding tackles on his rush attempts. Drake averaged 4.63 yards gained after defenders closed within one yard of him on Monday night (NFL average -- 3.7). He came into Week 14 trailing only Alvin Kamara in that metric, among backs with 60-plus carries, with a 5.01 average.
Not only does Drake's elusive running style present a massive upgrade for the Dolphins offense but his presence as an outlet receiver is an assist for Cutler. Drake has eight catches for 100 yards over his last two games, a stark contrast to Ajayi who proved to be a zero in the passing game as a Dolphin despite gaudy college statistics.
The Dolphins secondary has been an issue for long stretches of the 2017 season. Just two weeks ago, Tom Brady and this Patriots team dropped four touchdowns on them. The story couldn't have been more different in Week 14. The Patriots wide receivers went without a catch for the entire first half, with Danny Amendola recording the first with 10:18 left in the third quarter.
Howard not only snagged two impressive interceptions on deep throws to Cooks, but he held the speedy receiver in lockdown coverage all night. Cooks averaged a measly 1.6 yards of separation on his targets against the Dolphins on Monday night. He didn't his one and only catch until there was less than three minutes to play in the game. Howard wasn't even in coverage on that target.
The term shutdown corner is used a bit too loosely in the NFL world at large. Few players consistently blank the receivers in their coverage responsibilities. For one night, at least, Howard offered a true and perhaps the most complete shutdown effort we've seen out of a cornerback all season.
Pressure on Tom Brady
Brady was under pressure on over 30 percent of his throws against Miami and completed just six of those attempts. He was even worse when the Dolphins sent extra rushers. Brady faced the blitz on 17 of his throws and completed just six with a passer rating of 39.1, the third-worst among quarterbacks in Week 14.
The extra heat saw Brady's deep ball vanish from his arsenal. Both of his interceptions came on passes of 20 or more air yards. He widely missed an open Chris Hogan on a long-ball down the sideline in the second half. Brady completed just one of his six deep pass attempts on Monday night.
In a game that reminded us once again of the weekly unpredictability of the sport that keeps us so enthused, the Dolphins saw two of their emerging second-year players offer dominant performances as their front seven took it to the possible NFL MVP. In a full-on stunner against their AFC East rivals, it was those three factors that sealed the dominant outing with a needed win.