New England, thanks in part to Baltimore's home loss to Pittsburgh Sunday evening, vaults to the number-two seed in the AFC Playoffs in today's standings. The current top dog, Houston, comes to town for a Monday Night Football playoff preview. If New England wins, they'd only be one game behind the Texans record and would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker if Houston and the Patriots finished with identical records.
But… we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
What matters most right now is that the Patriots are officially in the playoffs by virtue of capturing the AFC East crown yesterday in Miami.
"Well, it's a good feeling this morning after the outcome of the game yesterday," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters via a mid-day conference call.
The 23-16 victory over the Dolphins may not have been New England's best game on the field all season, but to this point, it's the most consequential. Again, that will almost certainly change in seven days, following the outcome of the Houston affair.
One reason the Patriots were able to limit the Dolphins offensively, according to Belichick, was because of the play of cornerback Kyle Arrington. He was asked to blanket Miami's most talented wideout, Davone Bess, and Belichick said today that Arrington, playing mostly as a slot corner in nickel and dime sets, "held up his end of it."
"I thought Kyle played well, really had a solid game," the coach added.
Offensively, the Patriots' final drive was by far the most crucial of the game, draining more than seven of the remaining 8-and-a-half minutes left in the contest and ending in three key points. Running back Stevan Ridley was the workhorse, rushing 10 times in the drive's 16 plays.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels attributed much of the success of that drive – at the end of a hard-fought battle in the warm, Florida sun – to his players' conditioning level – particularly after they hadn't run the ball very well all game to that point.
"We were able to execute later in the game. I thought that was a credit to our guys and the conditioning, the work that they put in to be in that position."
McDaniels insisted his group didn't change much of its tactics on that drive, just that they were more efficient in their execution of the plays called.
"I thought the backs made some really good runs on that last drive," McDaniels added. "The line and the tight ends did a nice job of getting [defenders] covering up to allow that to happen… Our guys really stepped up and handled that challenge at that time."
An even bigger challenges presents itself next week against the Texans, for whom the Patriots will begin preparing in earnest this Wednesday. As is often the case late in the season after victories, Belichick gave his players today off, along with their customary Tuesday during the season. The team will be back at work in two days time and will have an extra day on Saturday to practice thanks to the Monday night kickoff.