In the NFL’s high-rent district, Sunday marked the end of one journey and the start of another.
For the Patriots, winning the AFC East title -- which they wrapped up with a 23-16 win over the Dolphins in South Florida -- is the first goal on a to-do list they hope ends with a happy trip to New Orleans in two months.
In New England, certain things are simply taken for granted: Spring follows winter, there will be corruption on Beacon Hill, and the Patriots will be AFC East champions. This is the 10th one in the last 12 seasons for the combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady -- Brady passed Joe Montana for most division titles for a quarterback with the honor. And while they don’t necessarily take it for granted, taking home an extra T-shirt that says “Division Champion” on the front isn’t the final goal.
They’ve got enough hats and T-shirts. There’s always room for another trophy.
“It’s good to get another division win,” Belichick said flatly after the game. “We accomplished one of our goals this year, to be in the postseason -- that’s good. But more importantly, we’ve just got to keep working to get better. We still got a lot of football left to play. We’ve got a long way to go. Hopefully, we can improve every week.”
“This is when the best teams really start to separate themselves,” Brady said. “Your depth is challenged, your mental toughness is challenged. Fighting through the bumps and bruises of a long season is a challenge and getting contributions from a lot of people is a challenge.
“That’s what you need this time of year. You have to continue to get better and better and better and string games together and string practices together, so when you need it the most you have it in the bank.”
For an offense that had spent the previous month putting up insane numbers, the contest was a bit of a surprise, as the Patriots scored two touchdowns and were bottled up for large chunks of the game by the Miami defense. But the defense was up to the challenge, holding the Dolphins to one touchdown and three field goals, limiting running back Reggie Bush to 64 rushing yards, and coming away with more game-changing plays on the way to a fourth-quarter lead.
Despite all of that, the game wasn’t over until the Patriots sucked the air out of the building with a spirit-killing fourth-quarter drive -- their best fourth-quarter offensive sequence of the season -- that ended with a 20-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski. In that series, New England simply ground down one of the best run defenses in the league, giving the ball to running back Stevan Ridley time and again and allowing him to churn out the tough yards. For the first time all season, the Patriots successfully executed a four-minute offense, going 77 yards on 16 plays and taking a whopping 7:18 off the clock in the process.
By the time the Dolphins got the ball back, it was too late. A late onside kick was off the mark, and the Patriots had their “Division Champion” hats and T-shirts. Wes Welker had 12 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown, while Stevan Ridley had 19 carries for 71 yards, Brady was 24-for-40 for 238 yards with one touchdown and one pick, and defensive end Trevor Scott had a pair of sacks.
But in the end, it wasn’t about hats or stats for the Patriots. Ultimately, the goal of the 2012 Patriots is something else.
“It’s not about stats, it’s about wins,” Belichick said after the game. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
TOM BRADY CAN WIN IN MIAMI AT LESS THAN HIS BEST
It wasn’t the best day at the office for Tom Brady, who looked out of sync with just about everyone other than Wes Welker early on. (The fact that the Miami run defense was stopping just about everything the Patriots were trying on the ground had something to do with that, which made New England more one-dimensional that it would like to be early on.) He tossed a first-half pick on a great play by Miami defensive back Reshad Jones, and there were times when he looked like he was forcing it to Aaron Hernandez. But aside from the soul-crushing drive in the fourth quarter, Brady and the offense was probably at their best in the second quarter when they went 75 yards on 13 plays in 5:40, a sequence that saw Brady and Wes Welker play pitch and catch most of the way down the field. (On the drive, only one of the 13 plays was a negative play, and 38 of the 75 yards came on pass plays to No. 83.)
Quote: “That wasn’t ugly -- that was a great win. They made it tough on us, no question about it and I thought we fought hard. We made some critical plays when we needed to, we knew it was going to be tough, and it was. They played really well and challenged us every single play. We made some plays when we needed to so it was a great win.” -- Brady on the victory
THERE WERE NO TOUCHDOWNS, BUT SPECIAL TEAMS MADE A DIFFERENCE
While there were no highlight-reel special teams plays for the first time in a few weeks, the New England special teamers had several key moments Sunday against Miami, taking advantage of a couple of Dolphins errors to put 14 points on the board:
• In the first quarter, the Miami offense went 3-and-out to start the game, and a botched snap on the punt attempt -- Miami punter Brandon Fields dropped the ball and was unable to get the punt off as a result -- gave the Patriots the ball on the Miami 12-yard line. A few plays later, Stevan Ridley bounced off the pile and walked in from the 2-yard line to give New England a 7-0 lead. It marked another touchdown off a turnover for Patriots, who had no problem taking advantage of the short field and punching it in for the score.
• On their first drive of the second quarter, the Patriots couldn’t pick up the first down, but kept the ball thanks to the fact that Miami defensive back Jimmy Wilson drilled Patriots’ punter Zoltan Mesko in the groin on his punt attempt. (In a turnabout, it was actually Wilson who got the worst of the collision, going down in a heap.) New England took advantage of the roughing the kicker penalty, going 13 plays and 75 yards in 5:40 and scoring when Brady hit Welker on a 7-yard touchdown pass.
It wasn’t all good, however, as Stephen Gostkowski missed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide right in the first quarter. He connected on the other three chances on the afternoon -- chances from 43, 32 and 20 yards -- as well as both of his extra-point attempts. While you shouldn’t look for the Patriots to start auditioning kickers anytime soon, Gostkowski’s occasionally erratic performance bears watching as the postseason looms.
Quote: “We try to do that every week. We try to take advantage of other teams mistakes.” -- Belichick on trying to take advantage of Miami errors
BRANDON SPIKES IS IMPROVING IN COVERAGE
The linebacker struggled for large chunks of his first two seasons in New England while working in coverage, but he was able to make big gains against the pass late last season. And while he’s still a work in progress at the position, he continues to make plays on the ball on a pretty consistent basis. On Sunday against the Dolphins, he picked up a pair of passes defensed (the only member of the New England defense to record a PD), and the player once castigated for his work in pass coverage now has seven passes defensed on the season. It’s the highest total on the team for any non-defensive back, and he trails only Devin McCourty (11) and Kyle Arrington (8) for the team lead. One might argue that he sees more passes coming his way because opposing offenses know to target him, but it’s hard to argue with the numbers he’s put up to this point in the season.
(As long as we’re talking about nice plays by LBs, it’s important that we bring up the fourth quarter sack of Tannehill by Jerod Mayo, which came with the Dolphins knocking on the door of the New England end zone in the fourth quarter. Miami was sitting on the Patriots’ 7, facing a 3rd and four when Mayo came flying up the middle on a delayed blitz -- he shot the gap and plastered Tannehill, knocking him flat for an eight-yard loss and forcing the Dolphins to settle for a field goal that made it 20-13 with 8:28 left in the fourth quarter. It was the third sack of the season for Mayo, who ended with six tackles, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble on the afternoon.)
Quote: “It never gets old. It never gets old going against a great group of teams, you know, in Buffalo, the Jets and the Dolphins. Like I said we’re going to enjoy this one, but we have other goals for the season.” -- Mayo on winning the AFC East
TAKEAWAYS REMAIN THE DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC OF THIS DEFENSE
It wasn’t the turnover-fest that many of us initially that it would be (the Patriots entered the game at +24, best in the league, while Miami was -10, the bottom third of the league), but New England still came away with one on the day. That came in the second quarter when defensive end Trevor Scott strip-sacked Tannehill, knocking the ball loose and allowing Vince Wilfork to come away with the ball. (The Patriots had a takeaway that wasn’t really a takeaway when the Dolphins fumbled a punt attempt deep in their own territory.) With the forced fumble by Scott, the Patriots have forced a turnover in 23 straight games, dating back to 2011 and including the first 12 games of 2012. The last team to have at least one forced turnover in all 16 regular-season games was the 2010 Falcons.
Quote: “This defense, we’ve done a real good job around here of getting turnovers. We had a couple on the ground today but we didn’t give it to them. We played the way we wanted to play. It’s always good to get them and I was just at the right place at the right time and I was pretty excited about it.” -- Wilfork on his fumble recovery
THE PATRIOTS CAN SUCCESSFULLY EXECUTE A FOUR-MINUTE OFFENSE
New England put together its most impressive fourth-quarter drive of the season against the Dolphins, grinding out the clock in impressive fashion against one of the best run defenses in the league. To that point in the game, Miami had done a good job bottling up Ridley and the rest of New England’s backs, but with the game on the line, the running game came through. The Patriots assembled a 16-play, 77-yard drive that took 7:18 and ended with a 20-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski that iced the game. On that drive, Ridley accounted for 46 of the 77 yards -- good, tough yardage that allowed the Patriots to keep moving the chains. (Ridley went over 1,000 yards for the season -- he’s actually now at 1,010 -- and became the fourth Patriots’ running back to reach 1,000 yards in 12 games. Curtis Martin and Jim Nance each did it twice, while Corey Dillon did it once.)
Quote: “The game plan was awesome. I love our coaches. I love what they do for us every Sunday and we just have to come out here and execute. You know it was a tough battle. They didn’t want to just give it to us. We had to go out there and play for it and that’s what we did today.” -- Ridley on why he and the Patriots had success running the ball late
WES WELKER CRUSHES HIS OLD TEAM
This week, Welker insisted that it’s not personal when he faces his old team, but he sure acts like it. The slot receiver was dominant early on Sunday against the Dolphins -- he finished the first half with 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown in the first two quarters, and ended with 12 catches for 103 yards and a score. (It’s the 17th game of 10 or more receptions in his career, putting him into a tie with Jerry Rice atop the all-time list.) Despite a fourth-quarter drop in the end zone, Welker was immense against his old team, coming away with one of his best games of the season. He was at his best on the first drive of the second quarter for the Patriots, when he sparked a 75-yard drive by coming up with 38 yards on his own, including a seven-yard touchdown pass that came on a neatly executed slip screen that saw the receiver walk into the end zone.
Quote: “He’s an unbelievable player, and teammate and friend. Nothing that he does ever surprises me. He expects the best out of himself every single day and that’s what he brings to practice and what he brings to the games. We couldn’t be in this situation without him so I’m glad he’s on our team and not the Dolphins.” -- Brady on Welker
THE OFFENSIVE LINE IS BEAT UP
The Patriots’ offensive line was on a tremendous roll -- coming into the game, the group hadn’t allowed a sack in nine-plus quarters, a stretch of 146:18 of game action. But against the Dolphins, the line struggled, yielding four sacks (tying a season-high) and surrendering several other pressures from the Miami pass rush. (The worst moment came on the Patriots’ second series of the third quarter where Tom Brady was almost snapped in half on a sack by Miami’s Cameron Wake, who easily beat a hobbled right tackle Sebastian Vollmer off the edge and managed to crush the quarterback on what might have been the hardest hit on Brady all year.) Right Dan Connolly was questionable coming into the game -- he was on the injury report all week -- but ended up leaving the game, while Marcus Cannon and Nick McDonald worked in his place. Meanwhile, left guard Logan Mankins was out and Vollmer struggled all afternoon. With a terrific defensive front in the Texans coming to town, their health will be closely monitored this week.
Quote: “Our offensive line, they battled hard. They worked all day and they just kept fighting. That’s all you can ask of an offensive line is to just keep fighting until the very end. You see how football goes. The last drive it finally opened up for us and we found a way on a great run defense.” -- Ridley on the New England offensive line
IF JULIAN EDELMAN IS GONE FOR AN EXTENDED STRETCH, THE PATRIOTS HAVE SOME OPTIONS
The wide receiver, who had one catch for 13 yards Sunday against Miami, left the game in the second half with a foot injury, and was seen after the game in a walking boot and using crutches. Edelman, who has been dogged by injury for a good portion of the season (including a hand injury and a concussion he suffered last week against the Jets) had been emerging as a legitimate No. 3 option. But if he’s on the shelf for an extended stretch, the Patriots certainly have other options. They would necessitate some roster shuffling and there’s a question as to how much they have left in the tank, but all of who are familiar faces:
• Deion Branch is the most likely player who would return. The 33-year-old veteran, who was released last month, still has a fully-stocked locker at Gillette Stadium, and it appears that it was only going to be a matter of time before he was back on the roster, injury to Edelman or not.
• Donte' Stallworth is also a possibility -- the veteran was in camp with the Patriots this summer before being let go. The 32-year-old has deep roots in the New England system, having played with the Patriots in 2007, and would be able to get up-to-speed in the New England system fairly easily.
• Jabar Gaffney is another veteran who is on the street who spent three seasons with the Patriots, and also spent some time in camp with New England before being released this summer. Another veteran with lots of experience in the Patriots system, he is currently serving a two-game suspension for a 2010 off-field incident.
There’s also the possibility of New England moving Jeremy Ebert from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. In addition, there’s always the option of utilizing special teams star Matthew Slater at his given position. (He took some reps there Sunday against the Dolphins.) But the Patriots have options.
NOW, THE REAL FUN STARTS
The Patriots win -- combined with the Ravens loss to the Steelers -- has New England in a three-way tie with Baltimore and Denver in the race for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture. All three teams are 9-3, but according to NFL.com, despite the fact that the Patriots have lost to the Ravens, New England has the edge, because its’ currently 8-1 in the AFC, while Baltimore is 8-2 and the Broncos are 6-2.
Two games will likely help bring some clarity to the situation. Next Monday, the Patriots face the Texans, while the Ravens have a big game with the Broncos in Baltimore on Dec. 16 that could determine who winds up with the No. 2 seed. (For a complete breakdown of the AFC playoff picture, check out Mike Petraglia’s piece HERE.)
Regardless of what happens, if New England is able to run the table over the final quarter of the season, the worst it could do is come away with the second seed and the first weekend of the postseason off -- which would be big for a team that is looking to get several key players (including Vollmer, Rob Gronkowski and Logan Mankins) as healthy as possible.
Quote: “We've got a long way to go. We still got a quarter of the season left, and that’s a lot of opportunities for us to improve, which we need to do. Certainly on offense we can do better than we did today. We’ll just keep working to get better each week. We got a real good football team coming in … so, we’ll get ready for Houston, because that’ll be a big challenge.” -- Belichick