MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – There should have been only one New Year's resolution the Patriots needed to make: Learn from the past.
In other words, don't do what you did last January in Miami.
All last week, there were strong indications that the Patriots intended to treat this final regular season contest with more urgency than it appeared they did last year. The stakes were exactly the same. Win, and you're the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC. A loss to the Dolphins could still accomplish the feat, but New England would need help, this year from the Oakland Raiders if they were to lose to the Broncos in Denver.
But the Patriots were hoping to avoid a redux of last year's Week 17 debacle that cost them the top spot on the postseason.
On the game's opening drive, New England looked like a team that meant business. QB Tom Brady was a perfect 6-for-6 passing and the rushing attack chewed up valuable clock on a half-dozen designed carries (Brady also rushed for a 1st down after finding no open receivers on one play). A wide open TE Martellus Bennett caught the game's first touchdown to cap off a balanced, methodical drive that ate up exactly half of the first quarter.
After the Patriots' defense held Miami to a three-and-out on their first possession, Brady and Co. had to go only half the field to score again. Appropriately, newcomer Michael Floyd, wearing jersey No. 14, helped put the Patriots up 14-0 with a 14-yard score. The wide receiver caught a Brady pass over the middle in the red zone, was met by a pod of Dolphins, and proceeded to churn his legs to will his way over the goal line. It was an emphatic moment for both Floyd and the Patriots.
"I haven't been in there in a while," Floyd smiled afterward, recalling the play. "I wanted to get in there for sure. Very hungry."
The defense continued its late-season dominance on the next Dolphin drive. A near-sack of Miami backup QB Matt Moore (in for injured Ryan Tannehill) turned into the game's first turnover, an interception by CB Logan Ryan.
"I'm happy I got one and I'm ready to get some more in the playoffs," Ryan declared later.
Meanwhile, New England had possession of the ball near midfield, but could only manage a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. He added another later in the half.
New England's defense then allowed a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a Miami touchdown just before halftime.
At intermission, New England could and probably should have had more than the 20-7 lead they enjoyed. The Patriots dominated the first half of play in all aspects, that late touchdown notwithstanding.
Poor tackling and a horrible missed opportunity to recover a Dolphins fumble contributed to another terrible lapse by the Patriots' defense at the start of the second half. Miami again traveled 75 yards, this time on 12 plays, to find the end zone and trim the lead to 20-14.
Flashback to last season, when the Patriots tried to rely on a late addition to the roster, veteran RB Steven Jackson, to help them beat Miami. That experiment failed, of course. This time, in an uncanny flipping of the script, another late-season acquisition helped spark New England's offensive explosion.
After scoring his first touchdown in a Patriots uniform earlier, Floyd provided a galvanizing block on the team's next one when he de-cleated Dolphins cornerback Tony Lippett on WR Julian Edelman's 77-yard scoring reception.
"I felt it. I felt it. I felt some wind go by," Edelman raved about Floyd's big play. "Mike's playing well for us. He's been here a few weeks and to make an impact like he has just shows he's a mentally tough guy. He's been through some stuff, and to put that aside and help us win ballgames is huge."
Just when it looked as if Miami was poised to cut into the lead again, safety/co-captain Devin McCourty forced a fumble that DE Shea McClellin returned 69 yards into the Miami red zone.
"I was in coverage on the back," McClellin recalled, "and Dev happened to come out and make a great play causing the fumble. I was in the right place. Tried to scoop and score. I didn't score, but I did what I could with it."
Shortly thereafter, RB LeGarrette Blount sealed the victory with a 1-yard waltz into the end zone. The ensuing successful two-point conversion attempt was the exclamation point on a convincing victory.
"The good thing about this schedule," Ryan pointed out, "is that we got to right a lot of wrongs that we messed up on last year. The difference with this team is, when they were driving, with momentum, we were able to get those turnovers – Devin's play pretty much sealed the game. Last year, we weren't able to get that and we kind of let this game slip away, which may have cost us in the end. This year we finished a little better."
To their credit, the Patriots never took their foot off the gas pedal, even though they weren't as productive in the second half. New England fought hard the entire day and thoroughly earned their top postseason seed. They can now rest easy for the next week until finding out whom they'll host in the Divisional round at Gillette Stadium.
"Oh, it's awesome," McClellin grinned. "Great feeling. Great atmosphere there [in Foxborough]. We can't wait to get started in a couple of weeks."
"It feels good knowing that everyone has to come to New England [for the playoffs]," Floyd remarked. "Just to finish the regular season off on a high note is always good."
"When you set goals and achieve them, it's always great," noted Edelman, "but once you achieve them, you have to set new goals."
And New Year's Day is a perfect time to do just that. New England's new goal is to complete the Super Bowl journey this time around.
"We'll push this next week," Edelman promised, "to try to have a good week of improvement and get ready for the playoffs."