While the game didn't play out as efficiently and impressively as the Gillette Stadium crowd may have liked, but in the end the Patriots took care of business Sunday afternoon in Foxborough with a 41-38 victory over the Dolphins to clinch a sixth-straight AFC East title and the 12th in the last 14 years.
Hats and T-shirts were passed around the field and locker room as New England checked off its first goal of the season, while also taking a step closer to the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
Though the final score ended up a lopsided victory there is no question the Patriots found themselves in a dogfight in the first half. Miami dominated the time of possession in the first quarter 11:26 to 3:43. But thanks to a Jamie Collins blocked field goal that Kyle Arrington returned 62 yards for a touchdown, New England led 7-3 after the one.
The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 14, 2014.
Miami continued to control the time of possession in the second quarter, but a Duron Harmon interception of a Ryan Tannehill throw and 60-yard return set up a short New England touchdown drive. Even with a Mike Wallace 32-yard touchdown just before halftime, the Patriots held an ugly 14-13 advantage at the break.
Not hard to imagine some stern voices being thrown about the Gillette Stadium home locker room at halftime.
But thanks to a franchise-record 24 third-quarter points, New England exploded to take control of the game after halftime. Tom Brady led scoring drives on four-straight third-quarter possessions – this a week after four-straight three-and-out third-quarter punts in San Diego – to take commanding control of the game.
Four scores and seven days earlier the Patriots sucked in the third quarter, but not anymore. And this output came against a Dolphins team that had previously outscored its opponents a combined 123-51 in the third quarter this season. It also came against a Miami team that had outscored the Patriots 23-0 in the second half in the season-opener in the South Florida heat.
New England utilized some of Miami's own words as motivation throughout the week leading up to Sunday and that may have fueled a second-half onslaught on the way to the blowout. It wasn't over until Jimmy Garoppolo got his mop-up snaps to close the door.
Now the Patriots will spend the next two weeks – on the road against the Jets and then hosting the Bills in the finale – trying to secure home field for the postseason and playing their best football as they hit January.
There is plenty to clean up and question from this victory, including coaching decisions and failure to execute in the first half, but a blowout win makes all that work that much easier. Especially when you can do that work wearing a new division title hat and t-shirt.
Before turning the page to the Jets, here are some of the highs and lows from Sunday's blowout:
Rob Gronkowski** – The tight end was shut out in the first half against by Miami, but came back in impressive fashion after the break. His 34-yard catch on the first snap of the third quarter ignited the Patriots stumbling offense. Later in that quarter Brady, who'd missed his Pro Bowl pass catcher on a number of would-be big plays, hit Gronkowski in stride after a turnover for a 27-yard touchdown on a one-play scoring drive to give New England the 31-13 advantage. Gronkowski only finished with three catches, but his 96 yards and a touchdown helped jumpstart the Patriots second-half output.
Jamie Collins/Dont'a Hightower – The two linebackers continue to lead the Patriots defense in impressive fashion. Hightower returned from a shoulder injury. Collins blocked an initial Dolphins field goal leading to Kyle Arrington's 62-yard touchdown return. Hightower had a beautiful tackle for a loss on a Lamar Miller run to the left, a half sack and a forced fumble later in coverage down the field. Collins was a force in the pass rush all afternoon. New England's two young, versatile linebackers have made overall lack of depth at the position a moot point given their impressive play of late.
Run Defense – It's time to simply acknowledge that after all the early season struggles, New England has put together a strong defense. Miami's Lamar Miller came in averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The Dolphins had averaged 5.0 yards a carry in their opening day win on the way to 191 yards. Sunday afternoon Vince Wilfork and his rotation of defensive tackles shut down the visitors on the ground. Miller averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. Miami had just 76 yards on 23 carries for a 3.3 average, with Tannehill chipping in with 21 yards. And 28 of Miami's 76 yards came on just two runs. Most of the day New England took care of business up front to continue its impressive run of run defense.
Malcolm Butler** – The undrafted rookie corner earned his first career start against Miami but it's not likely a game that he'll want to remember. On the first Dolphins play he gave up a 50-yard pass to Mike Wallace. His struggles early on earned him a spot on the bench. But when Kyle Arrington left with a hamstring injury Butler returned in time to give up a 32-yard touchdown to Wallace with barely 10 seconds left in the first half to pull Miami to 14-13.
Tom Brady – New England got the win in part thanks to the defense and special teams making big plays, key on a day when No. 12 wasn't nearly at this best. Brady had a batted pass turn into an interception early on. He missed a wide-open Gronkowski on an underthrown deep ball. He also missed an open Gronkowski for a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, settling for a field goal. Brady was admittedly hit a few times, but he still missed too many throws. He did have a nice, rare 17-yard run. Otherwise it was a subpar effort given Brady's usual high standards, finishing 21-of-35 for 287 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for a 93.4 rating. At halftime, before the offensive output, Brady had completed just eight of 15 throws for 82 yards with no touchdowns and one interception for a 41.5 rating.
LeGarrette Blount – Jonas Gray got back into the rushing mix – he had 11 carries for 62 yards – at least in part because of Blount's recent struggles. Blount had just 17 yards on his eight attempts for a 2.1-yard average. His longest run was just 5 yards, although he had one touchdown. After averaging 5.8 yards per carry or better in his first two games back in New England, Blount has struggled to find room to work the last couple weeks. The offensive line hasn't been great in terms of creating holes, but Gray hit the hole quicker and made more of his chances on Sunday against a Dolphins run defense that had allowed 661 yards combined in the three previous three weeks.