Chandler Jones (left), Tavon Wilson and the Patriots celebrated another AFC East title Sunday. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Things to consider while thanking the Patriots for single-handedly propping up the hat and T-shirt manufacturing industry:
— You always have to tread lightly when you celebrate a team winning its division. Anyone who lived through the Bruins hanging “Adams Division Championship” banners opposite the Celtics‘ real banners knows what a pathetic look that can be. That said, winning the AFC East 12 times in 14 years (and losing tiebreakers the other two seasons) isn’t nothing. It’s so automatic that if the Dolphins, Jets or Bills were somehow able to win it, America’s hat and T-shirt factories would have to convert to a whole different technology, like in WWII when the auto industry had to learn to make tanks and jeeps and such. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take winning the division for granted; let’s just not take for granted the fact we can take it for granted.
— More impressive than winning this dog’s breakfast of a division is the way this team is winning lately. The Patriots are flat-out razors in the second half. They haven’t given up a second-half touchdown since the Indy game five weeks ago. And they haven’t given up a second-half point since one field goal in Green Bay. I’ve heard ex-players say halftime is a lot more about getting your ankles re-taped than pep talks and coaches making “adjustments,” but watching these Patriots I’m not buying it. Unless that is some really special tape.
— It’s not hard to find the signature moment in this one. Tom Brady‘s third-and-11, 17-yard gut-check scramble wasn’t just the key play in the game, it was one where you instantly know that if the best should happen, you’ll be seeing it over and over again on the championship DVD and “America’s Game.”
— It was just your classic example of leading from the front. Like a general stepping out from behind the barricades, brandishing his sword and leading the charge, oblivious to the musket balls tearing holes through his hat. And the fact that it came on the same day as Aaron Rodgers‘ Discount Double Choke in Buffalo and Peyton Manning taking a shot to the sternum that knocked him out of the game with >ahem< “flu-like symptoms” made Crazylegs Brady’s run all the better. If it didn’t put him ahead in the MVP race at least, than the MVP is not a thing worth caring about.
— I’ll say this about that run: Don Draper couldn’t have come up with a better ad campaign for TB12 Sports Therapy Center. Apparently avocado ice cream turns you into Superman.
— The best unit on the field for the Pats was their front seven. Or to be more accurate, their front six, since they’re playing a base nickel now. The return of Chandler Jones and the ability to pair him with Akeem Ayers gives Bill Belichick options he’s never had before. He put them on the same side of the line standing up. He moved Jones inside to rush alongside Jamie Collins. On a second-and-10 Ayers and Alan Branch ran a tackle-end cross (TEX) on an outside toss to Lamar Miller where Branch turned the play inside and Ayers finished it off for a two-yard loss. On one down in the second quarter Rob Ninkovich lined up outside of Jones, dropped into coverage on Mike Wallace and nearly had the pick. On another, Jones and Ninko were next to each other, Ninko dropped and Jones speed-rushed Ja’Wuan James to force a fumble. Belichick typically throws more complex defensive looks as the season goes along, and having Jones and Ayers together is like giving him two 1,000-piece Lego sets that let him build anything he wants.
— And as this game got out of hand and Miami had to go all one-dimensional, the combinations of defensive fronts were getting pressure consistently, even with just four and even three guys rushing. My personal favorite schemes were the ones where there would only be one down lineman — usually Ninkovich — with everyone else standing around looking like they’re doing nothing. I don’t know if the Patriots have a name for it, but I suggest calling it the “state worker front.”
— On one play out of the state worker front, they put Jones over center, but he stayed home mirroring the running back. Instead Collins and Dont’a Hightower rushed, chased Ryan Tannehill 15 yards deep and forced him to throw it away.
— Another thing Collins and Hightower continue to do is attack the A-gaps at will. Last week it was Chargers rookie center Chris Watt, this week it was Samson Satele who got the enhanced interrogation treatment. In the third quarter Miami ran the run option on third-and-short, and Hightower shoved Satele a yard behind the line to blow up the play. On back-to-back plays at the end of the third/start of the fourth, Collins sliced right past Satele to make the tackle for loss, then blitzed the A-gap with Hightower trailing him and chased Tannehill right into Sealver Siliga for the sack. Seriously if it had gotten any worse for Satele Amnesty International would’ve protested.
— It’s hard to believe that this is the same Dont’a Hightower who looked so slow at diagnosing plays last year. Because at the risk of lapsing into hyperbole, his play recognition right now is damn near Bruschian. When it was still a 14-3 game, Miami ran an outside toss to Miller, and Hightower came streaking in to drop him like a sandbag for a five-yard loss. I assumed maybe it was a well-timed run blitz or whatever, but rewinding the play found he hadn’t moved prior to the snap. In fact, he was lined up a full step behind the other LBs and the strong safety. He just sniffed out the play and was two steps toward the ball carrier before anyone else had moved. I don’t know if he’s playing the best inside linebacker in the league right now, but I do know no one is getting more overlooked than he is.
— Note to CBS: Next time you’ve coming out of a break where you showed that Kate Upton shieldmaiden ad, you do NOT want to go straight to a “Mike and Molly” promo. It’s too much of an adjustment for your viewers to handle. It’s like how divers can get the bends if they surface too fast. You need a series of decreasingly hot buffer women in between, so you don’t hurt people. I’m going to suggest you go: Kate Upton — cute girl from the AT&T store — Flo from Progressive — Melissa McCarthy. It’s a matter of public safety.
— I’ve not be one of these people bellyaching about Jonas Gray still being in Belichick’s time-out chair. Not because I don’t like the kid, but because I just frankly think LeGarrette Blount is a better back. Having said that, it was good to see Gray getting touches again. Most of Blount’s runs have been developing at the pace of the continents drifting, and Gray’s runs were noticeably quicker. Plus he seems to have a good head for letting the play unfold, reading the holes and making the right cut. Like the move in the late third when he bounced it outside for six. Or the late third-and-2 he converted where it looked like nothing was there and he had the patience to look for an opening. It’s good to have him back.
— The best part was seeing how hard Gray ran now that he’s off double-secret probation. You could tell he was all fired up waiting for his chance. Like he was Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart watching The Hit Man get his ass kicked for 10 minutes and once he got the tag, came in to wreak havoc.
— I don’t think we fully appreciate how much the Patriots are dominating people on special teams, week after week. And I’m not just talking about fluke plays; I honestly think they’re more prepared than their opponents every game. On that blocked field goal, Hightower moved the official right before the snap, in the same direction the whole line appeared to be angling in from. Then the next Miami attempt — a chip shot — it looked like they all came in again. Then there was that short punt where Danny Amendola came back to field it like Dustin Pedroia going after a popup. And that doesn’t even mention Stephen Gostkowski, who’s so automatic now if you’re behind on your DVR you start fast forwarding as soon as the FG unit starts heading onto the field. I might have watched about 10 percent of his attempts all season. And that’s the ultimate compliment.
— Collins’ block was proof positive of how freakishly athletic the kid is. Ninety-five percent of the linebackers in football couldn’t have blocked that kick if you gave them a pool skimmer.
— OK, it wasn’t perfect. I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t gripe about the play calling at the end of the half. Granted, if the Dolphins didn’t have a great punt return followed by a preposterously athletic TD catch by Wallace we’re not even having this discussion. And the game situation did call for them to go conservative and bleed the clock. But even the love child of Chuck Fairbanks and Ann Coulter would say that was way too conservative.
— While I’m picking nits here, it seems to me that Brady, whether he’s feeling so strong from his insane, Spartan-like workout regimen or what, sometimes is guilty of overthrowing. Like on that interception by Jason Trusnik, he was trying to get it into Brandon LaFell underneath and threw it on a low trajectory, forcing it in. And he had a few others batted down as well before throwing a couple of great touch passes, like the Julian Edelman TD and the over-the-shoulder one on Edelman’s double move up the sidelines. Sometimes you’re too close for missiles, Goose, and you need to switch to guns.
— That said, Brady’s touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski up the seam was perfect. He looked off the safety, turned and fired a throw that could have gone straight through a Brink’s truck without slowing down. Again, it’s hard not to see that then watch Manning lobbing up these stomp rockets that are getting Denver’s receivers killed and not feel good about where your QB is at.
— This week’s applicable movie quote: “Dolphins, yeah! They think they’re so cute. ‘Oh, look at me! I’m a flippy little dolphin! Let me flip for you! Ain’t I something?” – Chum, “Finding Nemo”
— If there’s one thing you can count on even more than the Patriots winning the AFC East, it’s every other AFC East team being so badly coached they do something indefensibly stupid whenever the Pats play them. They just never fail to fail. In this case, in this case it Brandon Gibson who stepped up. Brandon Browner handed the Dolphins the gift of his weekly unnecessary roughness flag, and Gibson re-gifted it with a taunting penalty. He out-Brownered Browner. The difference is, we can forgive Browner’s penalties because at least they happen in the course of trying to make plays. Gibson’s was just pure AFC Eastiness of the highest order.
— Is it too soon to say, “We’re on to the 2015 AFC East title”?