We go into every season knowing that, some day, some year, another team in the AFC East will overtake the Patriots. That year was not 2016. As they have since 2009, Tom Brady and friends won the division, this year finishing atop the NFL standings with a win over a division rival. (For a fun look back, check out this video of the past eight division championship locker room celebrations, courtesy of Patriots.com.)
With a fast start and decisive finish, New England wrapped up the Dolphins on Sunday, 35-14, relegating the Miammals to sixth place in the playoffs while taking the top seed for themselves at 14-2 overall. The Patriots bolted out to a 17-0 lead after kicking a field goal on the first play of the second quarter. On their opening drive, Brady found Martellus Bennett for the tight end’s seventh touchdown of the season (career high). Brady then gave New England newbie Michael Floyd room to roam on an impressive score less than four minutes later. (You can see game highlights here.)
After the Floyd TD, the Patriots’ offense had 120 yards compared to Miami’s two. Give the Dolphins credit for a perfect, momentum-changing drive at the end of the first half where Matt Moore completed all seven passes, the last one to Landry Jones to make it 20-7. In the third, Moore found Kenny Stills open down the middle to close the lead to 20-14 and make things a little more interesting than the first quarter had forecasted.
Still, with a couple of big plays (one on offense, another on defense), New England ensured that Magic City would fail to work its voodoo on the visitors. They have also put themselves in a positive situation, playoff-wise, where they avoid the most formidable teams (Pittsburgh and Kansas City) in the divisional round and, if they beat Houston, Oakland, or Miami next Saturday night, host the AFC Championship.
Some stats worth revisiting: Brady was drafted in 2000. Since then, the Patriots have missed the playoffs three times: 2000 (rookie Brady did not play), 2002 (ended up 9-7), and 2008 (Brady injured for year, 11-5). So, New England has missed the playoffs once with Brady starting, not since the middle of George W. Bush’s first term.
Now, here’s a New Year’s resolution for Patriots fans: enjoy this while it’s happening. Instead of fretting over who’s coming to Gillette and how that team could topple the dream, stay in the moment and really think about 14-2. Think about the uncertainty surrounding the team in September as they started a backup, and then as the backup got hurt. Think about how three QBs combined to throw 32 TD passes against two interceptions this season, not a single one of those on the road (where the team went 8-0). For context, Derek Carr, a very good QB for the Raiders, threw six picks this year. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a not-very-good QB for the Jets, threw 17. Brady threw 18 interceptions in the past three regular seasons combined.
New England has a bye week. Let’s all take the time to savor it.
No Sacks On Sunday: When we give credit to Brady, who completed 76 percent of his passes (25 of 33) for 276 yards and three touchdowns, we must also commend the Fab Five in front of him. The Patriots’ offensive line did great work, holding Dolphins’ pass rushers like Cameron Wake (11.5 sacks this year) to only one hurry and zero sacks on the day. It has been a hell of a turnaround for the crew, as last year Brady was running for his life more than the cast of Tidal Wave. Add to that a consistent running game (29 for 120, 4.1 avg.) and this offense looks to be in formidable shape heading into the postseason.
Stop Signs: We have to give this defense praise for holding opponents to just over two touchdowns per game (15.6 points). You can downplay the level of competition as much as you like, but if you contrast each game vs. the Dolphins, you can see improvement. While the Pats allowed 24 points during a furious second-half Miami comeback on September 18, holding on for a 31-24 win, this past Sunday they only let up 14 points to a hot playoff team at home (Miami had won nine of their previous 10).
New England held opponents under 20 points eleven times this season (hat tip to Ryan Hannable of WEEI). Your team’s going to win a lot of games that way.
Walkin’ Round Like You’re Pretty Boy Floyd: While we should never forget why Michael Floyd was available (hint: the letters rhyme with He Who High), we can take a moment to appreciate his effort in Miami. At 3:44 of the first quarter, from the 14-yard line, Floyd caught a pass at the nine, made contact at the three, and drove through four Dolphins for six points. (Sounds like a terribly disorganized math problem.) With 6:19 left in the second quarter, Floyd had a sweet-feet sideline grab for 13 yards that set up New England’s second field goal of the day. And, of course, he peeled back to provide Julian Edelman with a horizon’s worth of daylight after a gasp-inducing block on defensive back Tony Lippett that sprung Edelman for a 77-yard score.
We can only hope that, with support, Floyd can stay on track and help himself. His obvious willingness to work may help.
It Goes To 11: Edelman had a career day, earning AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors with help from his 77-yarder (the longest TD reception of his NFL tenure), totaling eight catches for 151 yards. This makes his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty all the more frustrating. With one minute left in the first quarter, Edelman got sandwiched between two Dolphins (soo much mercury in a Dolphin sandwich), took some verbal abuse, and head-butted a Miami defender. That made a second-and-10 situation at the 24 into a second-and-25 at the 39. New England gained 17 yards (four-yard Dion Lewis run, 13-yard Chris Hogan screen), but had to settle for the field goal.
Had the Patriots scored a TD on that drive, they would have led 21-0 on three possessions after a little over one quarter. To that point, the visitors had run 23 plays to the hosts’ five, out-gaining them 152 yards to four. Not that Miami would have given up at 21-0, but the penalty seemed to let them know that they could get to New England. Holding the Pats to a field goal seemed to give them a little hope. While I understand the idea of sticking up for oneself, maybe do it via the scoreboard? Any lack of discipline – no matter how minor it may seem in retrospect – can make a big difference in the playoffs.
Blue Jay: Miami had to have success rushing to give themselves the best chance, but New England did a solid job limiting Jay Ajayi (16 rushes, 59 yards, 3.7 avg.), a relentless power runner who received plenty of pre-game praise from Coach Bill Belichick. The Pats kept Ajayi from embarking on any game-changing runs, with his longest jaunt at 11 yards. Rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts (seven tackles) deserves special mention here, flying to the ball like a ravenous ferret after a stuffed squab. As a team, the Pats held the Dolphins to 3.3 per carry.
Come On Ride The Trey: One big reason for the defense’s success has been the play of Trey Flowers, who has managed to bother opposing offenses from every position along the line. Flowers had no sacks on the day, but he spent as much time in Moore’s face as eye black, in one first-quarter play swooping past the center as part of a three-man rush to cause an incompletion. Flowers had five tackles, including two that limited Ajayi to one yard each, and two quarterback hurries.
Phillips Drive-Screwer: Credit to Miami’s Jordan Phillips for messing up New England’s plans for an easy second half. The 6-foot-6, 335-pound D-lineman/geological mass became tough to traverse in the third and fourth quarters, limiting Lewis to negative yardage on one play, following that up with a tipped pass, and forcing Pats guard Joe Thuney to hold on another drive that negated a 12-yard completion to Hogan. In a game where Ndamukong Suh garnered a lot of attention for the wrong reasons, Phillips deserved note for the right ones. (Although, as Barstool.com’s Jerry Thornton pointed out in his “Knee Jerk Reactions,” Phillips seemed to dance after every play like he was working the day shift at the Golden Banana.)
Nothing You Could Say Could Tear Me Away From My Kyle: Okay, not the best game for linebacker Kyle Van Noy. In the first quarter, running back Damien Williams ran past Van Noy down the sideline, but the pass was overthrown (largely due to the aforementioned pressure by Flowers). In the third quarter, Van Noy played a little Birds Eye defense, getting frozen in the middle of the field as Stills loped past for a touchdown catch where he was only slightly less open than the fields atop the Cliffs of Moher. Neither play overburdened fans with confidence, but I still believe in Van Noy. He’ll never be a great coverage guy, so it’s a matter of putting him into position to rush the passer and support the run, while helping out with coverage in zone schemes.
Coach Belichick put the blame on himself, saying the defensive scheme “just wasn’t presented well enough” in practice. Seems like that’s fixable. In any case, Van Noy still has some positive plays left in him.
Moore, Moore, Moore, How Do You Like It? You could see New England’s team effort in the different ways they conspired to make Moore’s job tough. Chris Long and Alan Branch tipped passes. Jabaal Sheard flushed Moore out of the pocket, hurrying him into a Logan Ryan interception. Flowers and Rob Ninkovich hit Moore on the arm like they were siblings in a three-hour Punch Buggy contest. In a game where the Patriots tallied zero sacks, the front line still helped make a difference by finding alternative ways to force incompletions.
Shea, Rattle And Roll: Timely turnovers play a huge part in scoring defense, and nothing proved timelier than Shea McClellin’s scoop-and-scuttle of safety Devin McCourty’s forced fumble on Williams. Miami had reached New England’s nine-yard line and looked poised to make it a one-score difference with nine minute left, but McClellin (three tackles) wrangled the pigskin and rambled 69 yards (the longest fumble return in Patriots history), all the way to Miami’s 18. (Williams deserves recognition for his hustle in making the tackle.) Six plays later, LeGarrette Blount sliced through the line for a one-yard, game-icing plunge. (Blount wrapped up the regular season with 1,161 yards on 299 carries and a franchise-record 18 touchdowns.) With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it two-point conversion bubble screen to Edelman, New England led 35-14 with 5:33 left, paving the way for the backups.
See B.S.: Actually not a bad week from the Tiffany network, replay-wise, as only three missed reviews seemed to come up during the broadcast.
• At 9:48 of the second quarter, Brady appeared to miss tight end Matt Lengel across the middle, though it would have been helpful to see the play again and check on how close Lengel came to catching it.
• Malcolm Butler seemed to knock Stills out of bounds at 13:51 of the second on an incomplete pass, but it proved tough to discern from the far sideline and could have used another look-see (CBS instead went to graphics on Miami’s wacky season timeline. So fun!).
• On Edelman’s two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, Miami got called for a facemask penalty that we never saw again. The cameras isolated Chris Hogan jogging back to the sideline, so I assumed he got his mask tugged, but we didn’t get a chance to review it.
Would have liked to see that 2-point play one more time. Might come in handy at some point. (Note: upon the sixth or seventh DVR viewing, it became apparent that Lippett grabbed Edelman’s facemask in the end zone after the completion. Not a great day for Lippett chasing Edelman, it would seem.)
One incorrect call by Fouts of note. At 14:44 of the fourth, Brady threw incomplete after a rush by Suh and Wake. Fouts credited Phillips with the knockdown but we could see Wake on the replay.
And with the salty, a little sweet: kudos to CBS for their end zone camera angle on the kickoff after the two-pointer, as we could see the Patriots lose contain on the Dolphins’ left side, allowing the home team room along the sideline and a healthy return. If you get a chance to see this play, watch for special teams coach Joe Judge shaking his head afterward. An unusual, intriguing view.
Bye Product: No Patriots game this week, but you can keep up with all league happenings on WEEI’s NFL Sunday broadcast with Pete Sheppard and Christopher Price from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. I don’t usually promote particular radio shows, but these two have created an entertaining, informative, and – can it be? – eminently listenable program for your Sunday mornings. Shep praises the Pats (as he would say, how can you not when they’re 14-2?), while Price puts on the brakes a bit, but both give credit and criticism where it’s due across the league. It’s important to listen to shows like this when they come along and boost ratings, otherwise Boston sports radio will end up consisting of a dub mix featuring Scott Zolak’s color-commentator outbursts leading into a live studio filled with mic’d-up bonobos fighting over a kola nut.
We feel that the bonobos represent true, passionate Boston fans, and their disagreement over the kola nut depicts how the Boston fan is willing to campaign on behalf of –
Oh, for the love of Christ.
Straight To Health: No injuries. That was the real win, right there. The team managed Bennett, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and untold others, while giving necessary rest to receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola, both of whom may return January 14.
Just Four More To Make Gronk Giggle: Brady has thrown touchdown passes to 65 different receivers in his career, with Floyd becoming the latest on Sunday. The NFL record holder is Vinny Testaverde with 70 different TD pass-catchers. The big contrast? Testaverde played with seven different teams (eight if you include his two separate stints with the Jets). That shows Brady’s amazing ability to run the offense and adapt to new personnel. You can read about his first 55 different TD receivers in this piece from October 2015. Brady’s been a busy man since then. (Besides Floyd, can you name the four other players who have caught Brady scores for the first time in 2016? See below.)
The Hateful Eight: Again, 8-0 playing in front of hostile crowds on the road this season. Did not see that coming back in September.
Have Another Beard: I would sign on to Pay-Per-View or any website to figure out what New England defensive coach Matt Patricia and Miami head coach Adam Gase were talking about after the game. Patricia covered his mouth as he spoke like I do after eating a palm-sized broccoli floret dipped in garlic ranch. What were they talking about that required such lengths for privacy? Did Patricia just really, really like Gase’s t-shirt? This could be a mystery even the Internet can’t solve.
Coach Bag: Speaking of Patricia, ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss does a fine job breaking down New England’s most-sought-after assistants and exec, as interviews for head coaching and GM jobs have begun following the latest post-season purge. You can read up on who’s calling whom right here.
Personally? I’d go to Jacksonville. It’s Florida, it’s quiet, you can get yourself a small outboard fishing boat and some tackle and spend your offseason contemplating life in the safety of the shallows. Plus, pretty cool uniforms, if you ignore the horrendous Thursday Night Color Rush Condiment Debacle. What’s not to love?
Suh See Snowflake: I’d bet Blount wouldn’t mind seeing Suh up in Foxboro in January. The tackle certainly makes things interesting, to put it nicely. With five minutes left in the first half, Suh got called for an encroachment penalty. The fascinating part was listening to the home crowd boo the call. This was encroachment on the defense in the same way a 40-ounce Whitman’s Sampler is a nibble of chocolate. Suh knocked center David Andrews back two yards and was lucky to avoid an unnecessary roughness call. Strange play, and a reminder that great athleticism needs a complement of football awareness to be consistently effective.
Four Score And Seven Points To Go: Bennett, Hogan, Mitchell, and Lengel have all caught TD passes from Brady for the first time this year. Floyd makes five in the 2016 Brady Club.
A Hell Of A Racquet: Even though the David Ortiz Turbotax commercial is a ripoff of this scene from Bachelor Party, it’s a lot of fun. One question, though: what the hell are those tennis balls made of? No matter how far Ortiz launches one, it wouldn’t be able to go through a windshield, would it? I need answers.
Because that’s what I want in my tax software commercials: accountability.
When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like A Cheap Pizza Pie ‘Cause It’s Frozen: The only thing that bothers me about the Walmart “Overtime” commercial is that this dude got his pizza from Walmart. I mean, the game is on TV, you’re having friends over, and you can’t spring for fresh pizza? If it’s pizza bites or pizza rolls, fine. But if you’re serving a pie, don’t you owe it to your buddies, yourself and your local merchants to bring in the real thing?
This message brought to you by my pizza snobbery.
Live And Let Die: Since “Law & Order” was canceled, Ben Affleck movies have replaced the series on my on-screen-appearance bucket list. As much as I appreciate his work, I’m not so sure about Live By Night. The trailer looks great, visually. It’s just that the dialogue and human interaction seem a little forced. Right now it’s at 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, so it looks like I’ll be seeing it on cable. Just don’t tell Ben. I’m hoping to play a bouncer in The Town II: Whatchoo Doin’ Back Heeah?
It Ain’t Over ‘Til It Seems To Be Over: Unintentionally funny line by Glenn Ordway on the WEEI post-game show. He seemed reluctant to discuss the game itself, focusing more on potential playoff match ups. At one point he lamented, “We can talk about the game if you want, but it seemed to be over early even though Miami got within a score.”
Even though Miami got within a score. So, then, I guess it wasn’t over early?
Because there’s no game next week, we’ll have a shorter column, focusing more on what local and national media are saying about New England, as well as the team’s opponent for the evening of Saturday, January 14. Enjoy the bye, people.
Chris Warner loves pizza, New Year’s resolutions be damned. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his twitter handle is @cwarn89.