FOXBORO -- It took 16 regular-season games and 17 weeks of action, but when the clock struck zero on the regular season Sunday night, there was one very clear thing we learned about the AFC: The Patriots and Broncos are the two best teams in the conference.
There are myriad reasons: veteran stability and wisdom, combined with quality offenses and stout defenses. And they have veteran quarterbacks who know the drill at this time of the year -- as the days get shorter and colder, the games get more important.
But in the end, the fact remains that when it was all on the line, they were able close the deal. With a bye week at stake on Sunday, the Broncos and Patriots were able to rise above, block out the noise and focus on the task at hand. While the Texans wilted over the last two weeks like wet cardboard, New England and Denver were equal to the task, taking care of business to distinguish themselves as the two best teams in the AFC.
On Sunday, Denver did it by blowing out the lowly Chiefs, 38-3, while the Patriots smothered the Dolphins 28-0 in front of a chilly sold-out crowd at Gillette Stadium (click here for the complete recap). In Foxboro, quarterback Tom Brady was 22-for-36 for 284 yards with two touchdowns, Stevan Ridley ran for two touchdowns and Wes Welker had eight catches on 12 targets for 94 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, the New England defense pitched its first shutout since October 2009, putting the capper on a 12-4 regular-season record and heading into the postseason on a high note.
As for the Texans -- who started the year 10-1 -- they ended the regular season with a fizzle, dropping three of their last five, including a 28-16 loss to the Colts in Indy on Sunday. The loss completed a tumble from the No. 1 seed all the way to No. 3 in a blink, and left Houston with more questions than answers.
The news of the Texans' loss flashed on the big screen at Gillette just before the start of the Patriots-Dolphins game, and it was greeted by big cheers by the frozen Foxboro faithful. While Patriots players gave varying accounts of how they learned about the outcome of the game -- some said they heard about it while they were in the locker room, others said they found about it when they hit the field before the game -- they’ll gladly take the gift.
"It was kind of a late Christmas present," Brady said with a shrug. "So, we accept."
You can argue that Houston played two tougher teams down the stretch than New England or Denver -- and you’d probably be right -- but at the same time, you can’t operate in a vacuum. The Texans had plenty of opportunities to distance themselves from the rest of the AFC and failed down the stretch.
“We had a great opportunity the last two weeks, but we won’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “We’ll focus on keeping our confidence up, even if we have to play next week.”
As a result, the Texans will face a frisky young Bengals team on a short week in the wild card round – that game is set for Saturday afternoon at 4:30. (If the Texans win that game, they’ll travel back into the lion’s den to face New England in the divisional round on Jan. 13 at 4:30 p.m. I wonder if we’ll see the lettermen jackets again.) The bottom line? If coffee is indeed for closers, the Patriots and Broncos are drinking Starbucks this morning, while the Texans are still sipping tea.
The Texans are a good young team, but right now the Patriots and Broncos are the two best teams in the AFC, and it appears we are all headed on a collision course. Mark it down: Jan. 20, 2013, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, version 2.0. Same as it ever was.
On the cusp of his 10th career postseason berth, Brady took some time to reflect on just how far this team has come, noting that New England was 2-3 in October, and since then the only loss came in the wake of a four-turnover shootout with the Niners.
“Well, we’ve won 10 of 11, so it’s pretty good,” Brady when asked about the state of the team. “We were 2-3 at one point, [and we] had some tough games early in the year. We won 10 of 11 and the only loss was a against a pretty good football team where we turned it over four times. So if we don’t turn it over four times, I like our chances.
“We’re just going to keep battling. I think that’s why you play them all. You don’t make, at the halfway point, at Thanksgiving, you kind of see where the teams are positioned, but you have to play all 16. After you put them all together, you see where you stand. We compete against everybody, so we’ll take out time to get some guys healed up and hopefully get ready to go whenever we find out whoever we play.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
THE PATRIOTS RUNNING GAME PUT TOGETHER AN IMPRESSIVE REGULAR SEASON
The Patriots running backs -- Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden -- finished up an impressive regular season on Sunday afternoon. The team rushed for 167 yards on 38 carries against one of the better run defenses in the league. (Miami entered the game 10th in the league in average yards allowed at 104.5 and tied for seventh in the league in yards per carry allowed with 4.0.) The Patriots were led by Ridley, who fell just short of 300 carries on the season (he had 290 on the year), but finished with 20 carries for 74 yards on Sunday and 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the season. As for Woodhead, he became the first New England running back since Kevin Faulk in 2008 to catch at least 40 passes and finish with at least 40 carries. (He had 76 rushes and 40 catches.) Vereen had Bolden continued to get good reps, and as a team, New England finished with 2,184 rushing yards.
QUOTE: “It was big. As offensive linemen, you always want to go for it and you always want to push it. It’s not our call; we just have to do it when it gets called and I was really happy that Ridley was able to stick it in there.” -- Center Ryan Wendell on Ridley’s second-quarter touchdown, which came on a drive that was capped off by a successful fourth-and-goal conversion on the Miami one-yard line.
TOM BRADY IS HAPPY AGAIN ... KIND OF
The quarterback was cranky in the wake of last week’s win over the Jaguars, lashing into his team and using phrases like “a bad 60 minutes of football” and “we got out-competed, out-fought, and we were lucky to win.” In the wake of Sunday’s win over Miami, he quarterback was a little happier, saying, “it was pretty cold and pretty windy, [but] we handled it better than the Dolphins.” The quarterback finished 22-for-36 for 284 yards and two touchdowns, and was at his best when he engineered a pair of impressive scoring drives at the start and finish of the second quarter. The first drive took 7:28 -- the second longest of the season for the New England offense, and one that looked an awful lot like the one that took 7:18 and closed out the Dolphins back on Dec. 2. It ended when Ridley snuck in underneath the pile from one yard out (on a fourth-down play) to make it 14-0 with 10:26 left in the quarter.
Quote: “He made a couple of big catches. It was nice to get him back in the flow of things. We used everybody, so it was exciting to kind of have everybody out there at once for the first time all season. We’ll use the bye and hopefully come back strong in a couple weeks.” -- Brady on the return of Rob Gronkowski
ROB GRONKOWSKI IS BACK
He wasn’t the usual Viking Warrior we’ve grown accustomed to over the last year-plus, but the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski allowed some new things to open up in the New England passing game, new elements we haven’t seen since he went down with an arm injury in a November win over the Colts. That much was evident on the first play, when Gronkowski cleared out the right side, allowing for Aaron Hernandez to pick up a 14-yard connection on the first play from scrimmage. He finished with 25 snaps, and ended with two catches on four targets for 42 yards and a touchdown. However, there were times where he looked downright tentative when it came to protecting that left arm, and it appears that his return to full strength remains a work in progress. Of anyone in the locker room, he probably needed the bye week more than anyone.
Quote: “I got limited reps, obviously -- not that many. But you always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs. It’s good to get the speed down, the feel of the game. If it’s practice, you can go hard, but that was game time. It was great to get some reps in, get the flow back into it and be out there with your teammates and connect with some chemistry with your teammates.” -- Gronkowski on his first game back
THE PATRIOTS DIDN’T GET OUT OF THIS ONE SCOT-FREE
Rob Ninkovich, an extremely versatile end-of-the-line player who has carved out quite a niche for himself in the New England defense the last two seasons, went down with a hip injury late in the first half and didn’t return. In his place, the Patriots did some defensive shuffling, but the loss of Ninkovich for any length of time would be a major issue for this defense. The Purdue product has emerged as one of the most important defensive players on the roster for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’s extremely versatile. If he’s out for a stretch, the Patriots would likely call upon multiple players to try and fill his spot, including youngster Justin Francis, who has played well as of late. He’s no Ninkovich, but he would likely be one of a handful of players who would be in line for more snaps if the veteran was out for any length of time.
Quote: “He’s mainly played defensive end this year but he’s also of course played in the kicking game and at times he’s played some linebacker. ... He’s a tough kid. He’s very competitive and he’s got good versatility. His ability to help us in the kicking game as well as defensively over the years, including this year, is pretty valuable too. He does a good job.” -- Belichick on Ninkovich and his impact
JUSTIN FRANCIS HAD HIMSELF QUITE AN AFTERNOON
The Patriots rolled several different defensive fronts out there on Sunday against the Dolphins. Whether that was to get a sense of how much some players could contribute going forward or how much was due to the fact that New England wanted to try some different combos, there were some intriguing personnel packages, including one look that featured Trevor Scott, Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork and Justin Francis that appeared to get some good, consistent pressure on Tannehill. At least statistically, Francis had the game of his life, finishing with three of the seven sacks on Tannehill (a season high for the New England defense). Meanwhile, Scott, Vince Wilfork, Derrick Martin and Brandon Deaderick each had one sack on the day. Many of the quarterback hits were the result of good coverage on the back end, and Belichick recognized the hits accordingly.
Quote: “They did a good job, but it’s team defense. Guys were covered, the quarterback had to hold the ball, they helped the pass rush. Guys rushed well, guys covered well. When the receivers are open, it doesn’t matter what your pass rush is. If you make the quarterback hold the ball then that helps the pass rush. It was good team defense.” -- Belichick on the New England pass rush created primarily by the front four
THE OFFENSIVE LINE HEADS INTO THE POSTSEASON ON A POSITIVE NOTE
It had been a rough stretch for the O-line -- Brady was sacked just three times from Week 6 to Week 12, but he took 11 sacks from Week 13 through Week 16. In addition, the Patriots entered Sunday game facing a Miami team that had had sacked Brady four times on Dec. 2, and was sixth in the NFL through 15 games with 41 sacks. On Sunday, the Patriots were able to keep Brady relatively clean -- the quarterback was sacked just once, while the Dolphins got just two hits on him. The Patriots were able to hold the Miami pass rush at bay with a heavy dose of the running game (New England ran the ball 38 times), but the offensive line should get the bulk of the credit for the work against the Dolphins pass rush. (For the season, Brady was sacked 27 times in the season, tied for the fifth-highest total of his career. By way of comparison, his highest sack total was 2001 when he was sacked 41 times. The fewest was 2009, when he was sacked 16 times.)
Quote: “I’m not sure yet. I’ll watch the film and see exactly how everybody played and how we did. I felt like Tom was more upright, but he got hit tonight and anytime he gets hit that’s too much. So we’ll work on improving that for next week -- well, two weeks from now.” -- Wendell on the performance of New England’s offensive line
DON’T EXPECT THAT SECONDARY COMBINATION IN THE POSTSEASON
The Patriots held starting corners Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard out of the game -- Dennard was among the inactives, while Talib was technically active but spent the game on the sidelines bundled up with a big sign across his chest saying “USE ONLY IN CASE OF EMERGENCY.” (That last part may or may not be accurate.) In their place, New England moved Devin McCourty back to corner and paired him with Kyle Arrington, while Derrick Martin was first off the bench as the nickel corner. At safety, New England paired Steve Gregory and Pat Chung. While they performed well against the Dolphins -- Tannehill finished 20-for-35 for 235 yards and an interception by Gregory that set the stage for the Patriots’ first touchdown -- the grouping that New England wants to have completely healthy going forward remains Talib and Dennard at corner and McCourty and Gregory at safety.
Quote: “It’s key for us, man. We definitely had that in mind and had that in our intentions. We’ll use this valuably. We could definitely use the week. We need it. It’s important for all of us. We all could use it. It’s a long season and a rough game, so we all could use the extra week.” -- Talib on having an extra week of rest
MIAMI IS A TEAM ON THE RISE
The Dolphins appeared to pack it in midway through the third when Reggie Bush fumbled the ball away on the New England 3-yard line, giving the ball back to the Patriots and allowing Miami's only real scoring opportunity on the day to go by the boards with just over four minutes left in the quarter. But to that point, Miami certainly played this one on the level, hanging in against the Patriots for much of the afternoon despite the fact it had very little to play for. This is not to suggest that Miami will be challenging for the division crown by this time next year, but when it comes to AFC East teams outside the 508 area code, it’s easy to see that the Dolphins have the best shot of any of the other three division teams when it comes to possibly challenging the Patriots in the next 3-4 seasons. They have a solid foundation of talent, a good coaching staff and a ton of money (almost $50 million) to go after free agents in the offseason. They won’t be going to the playoffs this year, bit they are certainly pointed in the right direction.
Quote: “When you play a team like New England that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, you can’t give the ball away a couple of times. Early in the game, we gave it away and gave them excellent field position. ... In the first quarter you don’t want to give them anything. Then we gave it away when we were in scoring position. It looked like we had an opportunity anyway to get some points and we gave it away. When you’re minus-2 in the turnover margin, regardless of your opponent, you usually don’t win those games.” -- Dolphins coach Joe Philbin
NOW, THE FOCUS IS ON GETTING HEALTHY
For the Patriots, the goal of the next week is twofold. First, the Patriots want to contribute on getting healthy, particularly players like Gronkowski, Talib, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Spikes. Second, expect the Patriots to do some self-scouting over the bye week (not unlike what they would do during the regular season) and take a good look at what they do well and look to tighten up some areas of need. Then, it’s on to the next opponent: If the Texans beat the Bengals, it’ll be a rematch of New England and Houston. If Cincinnati wins, the Patriots will host the winner of the Ravens-Colts game. Regardless of the opponent, that game will be Jan. 13 at 4:30 p.m. at Gillette.
Quote: “It’s huge to be able to get guys healthy at this point in the season. We need everybody down the stretch. We need everybody out there healthy, trying to contribute to what we’re trying to do. Secondly, I think it’s a time for us to go back -- and anytime you have a bye week -- and evaluate ourselves, look at what we can improve upon going into the postseason, looking at what we need to work on to give ourselves a chance to have success down the stretch.” -- Special teamer Matthew Slater on the goals for the next week