FOXBORO — It’s a regular-season resume that’s every bit as impressive as their predecessors.
The 2010 Patriots won their 14th regular-season game of the year on Sunday. Fourteen wins in 16 regular-season games — including an eight-game winning streak to end the season — is a monumental achievement, worthy of the same amount of praise given to the three other teams that Patriots coach Bill Belichick led to at least 14 regular-season wins. Consider what the 2010 team accomplished: a perfect home record. A 6-1 record against playoff teams. An average of 32 points per game scored. A takeaway ratio of plus-28, one of the best in NFL history.
And a perfectly dominating way to end the regular-season — a 38-7 blowout of the hapless Dolphins in front of a sold-out home crowd (click here for the complete recap). Despite the fact that the team rested several starters and others played roughly a half, New England had little trouble from start to finish, jumping to a 24-0 halftime lead on the way to one of the easier wins of the year.
“It’s a nice way to end the season,” Belichick said Sunday’s win. “I’m proud of the way the guys played today; they stepped up and played like the AFC [East] champions that they are.”
The list of accomplishments compares favorably to the great teams of the past, but when it comes to stacking the 2010 team against the other Patriots teams that have enjoyed regular-season success, they are completely unique. Frankly, as the playoffs loom, there is no historical precedent for what football fans are witnessing.
They don’t have the same underdog qualities of the 2001 team — no one is going to take them lightly. (The final eight weeks of the season when they scored 30 or more points each game will make sure of that.) While they are just as powerful statistically, there’s not the same sense of manifest destiny that the 2003 and 2004 squads had — there was a near certainty that those teams were going to be the last one standing, maybe more because of sheer will than anything else. And while they can score with the best of them, they certainly don’t share the same shock and awe capability that the 2007 team used.
While their ultimate legacy will be written over the next month, their identity has started to emerge more and more each week: they are a team solidly in the image of their coach, a smart, shrewd and no-nonsense bunch that has come an awful long way since they gathered for training camp this past summer.
“[We’ve] come really far,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork of the current team. “I think we just did a really good job of taking it one day at a time, and I think it helped us in the long run.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
TOM BRADY DIDN’T GET HURT
After a week’s worth of discussion about whether or not the starters (and specifically, Brady) would play, the quarterback began the game and played most of the first half — he was yanked midway through the second for a few plays in favor of backup Brian Hoyer — and into the second. (He said after the game that Belichick told him there were going to be some cold substitutions like the one we saw on Sunday.) He engineered the first scoring drive of the second half for the Patriots before ultimately yielding to Hoyer with 10:15 left in the third quarter. He ended up going 10-for-16 for 199 yards and two scores, connecting on touchdown passes to Rob Gronkowski and Alge Crumpler.
There were a few scary moments, including one early in the game where Miami defensive back Sean Smith came on a blitz and was caught at the last second by running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who shoved him out of the way. Brady was inches away from being decleated. The final stats had four quarterback hits on Brady and zero interceptions, but none were bad enough for him to depart. For Patriots’ fans, the most important thing is that the quarterback emerged from the game no worse for wear.
“It’s good, man,” Brady said when asked about the finish to the season. “We talked about it all week — we’d hate to come out here and not finish the season the way we all expected it to.”
Brady’s highpoint of the afternoon came on a 40-yard pass play involving Julian Edelman. With just under five minutes left in the first quarter and the Patriots already up, 7-0, New England was in a first-and-10 situation at the Miami 41. Brady faked a handoff on an end-around to Edelman, and then swung the ball out to Edelman in the flat, who took off down the Patriots sideline, evading tacklers before being brought down at the Miami 1-yard line.
In addition, Brady continued to extend numerous records, including his NFL mark of throwing at least two touchdowns without an interception in each of his past nine games. He also extended his interception-free streak to 335 consecutive pass attempts without a pick, and finished the regular season with a 0.81 interception percentage, a mark that’s the third best in NFL history and the best among all quarterbacks in league history who had at least 250 pass attempts in their low-interception season.
“I’ve been very fortunate over the course of this season,” said Brady, who registered his ninth straight game with two or more touchdowns and no interceptions. “I’m just trying to make good reads and good throws. Guys have done a hell of a job catching the ball in traffic. Our offensive line has been protecting. We’ve been playing with a lead a bunch, too, so you don’t really have to force the ball in situations. Interceptions pretty much ruin my night. I’m glad my night is not ruined.”
WITH A YEAR-PLUS IN THE SYSTEM, BRIAN HOYER IS FURTHER ALONG AT THIS STAGE OF HIS CAREER THAN MATT CASSEL WAS
In the most continuous action he’s seen since he arrived in Foxboro, Hoyer finished 7-for-13 for 122 yards and a touchdown. But it was the way he piled up the yardage that distinguished this performance from his previous efforts.
So many of the Brady backups over the years have been asked to be game managers: No need to try and win the game. We just want to make sure you don’t lose it for us. Consequently, their action has been limited to short passes and handoffs. However, it’s one thing to be a game manager, playing not to make a mistake. It’s another matter entirely to unleash the sort of play that Hoyer delivered midway through the third quarter when he found Brandon Tate on a 42-yard route that made it 38-0.
It was a sensational catch and throw on several levels — Miami was sending extra pressure, Hoyer held the ball, delivered a pair of ball fakes and waited for the play to develop, Tate ran a clean and crisp route and the quarterback stood in the pocket and took a savage hit after releasing the ball. Hoyer quickly popped up, saw it was a touchdown and raced downfield with his hands in the air.
“I was just so elated, I just sprinted down,” he said of the first touchdown pass of his career. “That was a play that Brandon [Tate] and I talked about before, and we just kind of had a good feeling about it going into the game. He made a tremendous catch. You watch the replay afterwards, and he really went out and got it and made a tremendous catch.”
“That was real good for Hoyer’s first one,” Tate said. “I told him, ‘If you’ve got a chance, just throw it up there to me.’ So he trusted me and he threw it up there for me and made the big play.”
BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS DESERVES SPECIAL RECOGNITION
To go from being an undrafted free agent to 1,000-yard rusher isn’t an easy journey, but it’s one Green-Ellis completed yesterday. The undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss topped the mark on a 10-yard run on the second play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter, rumbling over right guard to become the 10th running back in franchise history to top the 1,000-yard mark. He finished the regular season with 1,008 yards.
“It feels good, but [none] of this would be possible without the offensive line, tight ends and everyone blocking and working had in practice,” said Green-Ellis, who became the first Patriots’ running back to reach the mark since Corey Dillon ran for 1,635 in 2004.
“It’s not really an individual accomplishment. For one person to say that they [got] 1,000 yards by themselves, they’d be lying to you. Everyone worked hard, like I said. Everyone comes to practice and works hard in practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and it’s paying off for us.”
“It’s great. That’s really a great accomplishment. I think, [given] the durability of that running back position and to rush the way that our offense has been running lately, it’s been great,” Brady said of Green-Ellis. “Benny should be pretty proud. It’s pretty cool for him.”
“He’s a young guy with an old soul,” said veteran running back Fred Taylor. “He’s very mature, very smart and he’s passionate about what he’s doing. That’s just BenJarvus.”
Green-Ellis may not be the type to sing his praises, but his teammates are more than willing to chime in on his behalf for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that in his 329 career carries with the Patriots, he’s never fumbled the football. In addition, he’s consistent with his production (4.4 yards per carry this season), and has a knack for avoiding negative plays — in his 229 carries this year, he only has 12 plays for negative yardage.
“I don’t think he is really calling plays for us to go backwards,” Green-Ellis said with a smile when that topic came up after Sunday’s game. “We want to get positive yards on first and second down and make third downs manageable. You don’t want to be in a third-and-long situation all the time where an offense can just tee off on your quarterback and pin their ears back and come. But what we do want to do is if we only get a yard or two we want to at least be moving forward.”
THE PATRIOTS HAVE DECIMATED THE MIAMI SPECIAL TEAMS COACHING STAFF
In their first meeting against the Dolphins, the Patriots rolled up a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked field goal for a touchdown and a blocked punt. The result? Special teams coach John Bonamego was fired, replaced by assistant Darren Rizzi.
On Sunday, Rizzi’s crew yielded a 94-yard punt return for a touchdown to Julian Edelman, the first punt return for a touchdown of the season for the Patriots and the longest punt return for a touchdown in franchise history. (Remarkably, it is the first punt return for a touchdown by the Patriots since Troy Brown had a 68-yard return at Carolina on Jan. 6, 2002.) It’s not the kind of thing that’ll get Rizzi fired, but it was the latest example of New England’s special teams dominance over a division rival.
“We knew we were going to get some chances this week with this punter, because he was prone to outkick his coverage, and he gave us a shot,” said Edelman of Miami’s Brandon Fields. “Our middle of the field, our guys held them up real well. As a punt returner, you’re supposed to make at least one guy miss, and we were fortunate enough to do that. Our guys held on their blocks, and we executed the play. It was a good play.”
“As a unit we just didn’t get the job done,” said Fields. ”From a kick coverage and a kick standpoint obviously everyone could have done a better job. We could have made the tackle on the 10-yard line, or inside the 20. Different situations call for different kicks. I have to look at the tape to see what I could have done differently. In hindsight I could have kicked it higher and shorter.”
JULIAN EDELMAN, ROB GRONKOWSKI AND TAYLOR PRICE RECOGNIZE AN OPPORTUNITY WHEN ONE IS PRESENTED TO THEM
Without Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez (all of whom were held out for various physical ailments or precautionary measures, depending on who you believe), the trio of Edelman, Gronkowski and Price were utilized heavily in the passing game. The youngsters combined for 12 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown (more than half the yardage and half the completions), and Edelman’s three catches for 72 yards and Price’s three catches for 41 yards (in the first NFL action of his career) represented season-highs for both.
After having one of the best seasons in recent rookie history (37 catches, 359 yards, one touchdown), Edelman took a big step back in 2010, struggling to both stay healthy and find his weekly role within the context of the offense. He finished the year with seven catches for 86 yards — the bulk of which came Sunday.
“It was difficult,” he said of the 2010 season. “I was still adjusting to coming in for certain roles and I’m still adjusting. I still have to get better every day doing my job and coming in here and going in one play, maybe, in the fourth quarter that you hadn’t been in all game. You got to make a big catch or you’ve got to make a first down or run or something. So, I’m going to be working on that this whole week that we have off and hopefully get better at that.”
Meanwhile, Gronkowski put the capper on a sensational rookie season by coming away with six catches for a career-high 102 yards and a touchdown, his 10th of the year, which set a franchise rookie record for receiving touchdowns in a season. He moved into heady company on Sunday — his 10 touchdowns are the highest single-season total by a Patriots tight end in franchise history, and he is only the fourth Patriots player to record 10 or more touchdown receptions in a season, joining Randy Moss (3 times), Stanley Morgan (2) and Jim Colclough (1).
Veteran tight end Alge Crumpler certainly wasn’t shocked to see Gronkowski put up great numbers as a rookie.
“If you get a guy that takes coaching and practices extremely hard, they can be successful in this league,” Crumpler said of his locker-room neighbor. “It’s great up to this point to see Rob play so well. We expect big things out of him not only the rest of this season, but for the rest of his career.”
And finally, there’s Price. The rookie out of Ohio had been inactive for the previous 15 regular-season games, but it was clear he was in for some serious playing time when it was revealed that both Welker and Branch would be out for the afternoon. Price responded with three catches for 41 yards, including a 17-yarder from Hoyer on Hoyer’s first play from scrimmage in the second half and an 18-yarder from Hoyer early in the fourth quarter.
“I missed it,” he said. “[To] get back on the field [and] start competing against somebody else other than my team, [I’m] glad to get back out there. I wanted to show what I can I do and why I’m here. So, I had fun.”
THE NUMBERS ACHIEVED BY THE 2010 PATRIOTS WHEN IT COMES TO TURNOVERS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPRESSIVE THINGS THIS FRANCHISE HAS EVER DONE
No matter how far the 2010 Patriots are able to advance, much of their ultimate legacy will be wrapped up in the fact that they took care of the football better than almost any other team in NFL history:
a) They fumbled the football once on Sunday — running back Danny Woodhead was blasted on a first-quarter run and lost possession — which left them with 10 turnovers (five fumbles, five interceptions) on the season. That is the lowest in NFL history for a 16-game season. (The record was previously set by the Dolphins and Giants in 2008 — each team had 13). In addition, they even one-upped the mark of 12 turnovers set by the Chiefs in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
b) You already know what Brady was able to accomplish with his accuracy, but as a team, the five interceptions as a team tied the NFL record for fewest picks in a single season. (The 1960 Browns, 1966 Packers, 1990 Chiefs and 1990 Giants were the other teams with just five interceptions.)
c) With their plus-one performance on Sunday, the Patriots set a franchise record by finishing the season with a plus-28 in the takeaway department. (The previous franchise best was plus-17 in 2003.) Their plus-28 mark is the second best, behind only the 1983 Redskins, who had an absolutely ridiculous plus-43 differential.
VINCE WILFORK IS A SPONGE BOB FAN
After the game, the big defensive lineman approached the podium with a T-shirt so yellow, one reporter was tempted to ask him what Curious George was like in real life. Turns out, it was a Sponge Bob T-shirt.
The biggest Sponge Bob fan in Southeastern Massachusetts played a large role (no pun intended) in New England’s 14-2 regular-season finish. If you want to a play a 3-4 defense, you need a world-class nose tackle to pull it off, and Wilfork was at his best this season. He put the capper on the regular season yesterday with a pair of sacks — the first two-sack game of his career — when he dropped Henne for losses of nine and six yards on the same third-quarter possession.
“All year we’ve been working our tails off rushing the passer, and every time I come free either he's getting rid of the ball or someone’s picking me up or [there is] a scramble, whatever it may be, so I was pretty excited to come in and be able to get a sack,” said Wilfork, who was in the game into the fourth quarter. “Last year, I finished with zero and going into the last game I was at zero, so that’s something I was talking about with my wife. I joke with [defensive line coach] Pepper [Johnson] all the time that I can’t go O-for again this year. And you know what, God answered my prayers and I made a couple of plays today.”
The combination of Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo have evolved into as good a defensive pairing as there is in the league, with Wilfork and the rest of the defensive front doing more than their share of keeping the linebackers free to make plays. Theirs remains a complimentary game: Mayo doesn’t have the season that he’s had (191 tackles — third-best in franchise history — and a Pro Bowl berth to boot) if Wilfork isn’t at the top of his game.
But almost more impressive than their on-field contributions is their work as locker room leaders. This was a team that was crying out for defensive leadership at the end of last season, and Mayo and Wilfork have stepped forward to fill the void.
“Jerod and Vince have been great leaders for us on the defense, so all the young guys look up to them. I’m considered kind of a young guy, so I look up to them, even though I’m a little older than Mayo,” said linebacker Rob Ninkovich with a chuckle. “So it’s cool, I’m happy to have those guys here.”
IN THE LONG HISTORY OF BRUTAL LATE-SEASON LOSSES FOR THE DOLPHINS IN FOXBORO, SUNDAY’S EFFORT MIGHT TAKE THE CAKE
The tone was set early on: In the first quarter, Miami quarterback Chad Henne threw five yards behind receiver Brandon Marshall on a sideline route. Marshall angrily stomped off the field, his displeasure clearly visible for all to see. It was soon clear that this was not going to be the Dolphins’ afternoon.
Late-season gag jobs by Miami in the cold of Foxboro are a fairly common occurrence, but what the Dolphins did on Sunday was absolutely extraordinary. After falling behind 14-0 after one quarter, they played like an uninspired, listless team on both sides of the football. They flip-flopped at quarterback, going from Henne to Tyler Thigpen and back to Henne again. They offered little to no resistance on special teams, missing a field goal and allowing a 94-yard punt return. And New England finished with 502 yards of total offense, even though the backups played for the bulk of the second half.
“We’re not close to where we need to be,” said Marshall, who had five catches for 97 yards. “Receivers and quarterbacks, we’re on several different pages. And you can’t have that. Everybody like I said has to speak the same language, starting with the coaches being on the same page and then it goes to the players. We just didn’t get it done this week or this whole year.
“It was difficult, frustrating, disappointing and embarrassing. It was all those things,” Miami defensive end Kendall Langford said of the Dolphins’ effort. “We let each other down — the coaching staff and the organization. What went on out there is not acceptable at all. That definitely wasn’t good ball. We didn’t play good ball, and it showed.”
In their two games this season, the Patriots outscored the Dolphins, 79-21.
NOW, IT’S ON TO THE POSTSEASON
The Patriots have the week off and will enjoy the time away while the rest of the AFC (except for the Steelers, who have the second seed), get to pound away at each other on wild-card weekend. New England’s first playoff game will be played Sunday, Jan. 16, at 4:30 p.m. against the lowest seeded remaining team from wild-card weekend — No. 3 Indianapolis will host the sixth-seeded Jets this Saturday at 8 p.m., while fourth-seeded Kansas City will host No. 5 seed Baltimore at 1 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s good to end the season on this note, but right now we’re just like everybody else; everybody is 0-0 at this point in the playoffs,” Belichick said. “So it’s time for us to get focused on the next target.”
“At the end of the day, I’m still happy where we are at,” Mayo said. “But we’re 0-0 now. It’s time to go to the playoffs.”
“I think we’ve had a good year — we’ve put ourselves in a real good position,” Brady said. “Really, none of it matters at this point other than I think … the greatest advantage we have is that we don’t have to play next week and we play at home the following week. So, that’s really what we’ve earned to this point. I don’t think we’ve earned anything more than that. Hopefully we’ll go out here in a couple weeks and play well. I think that’s what we would love to do.”