FOXBOROUGH –** Coming off two highly-charged road games – a close loss at Green Bay and a thrilling seesaw win in San Diego – the Patriots may have been excused for starting a little slow against the Dolphins Sunday in Foxborough.
At first it, looked like the Patriots were going to roll to an easy victory. Miami hit a 50-yard pass on its first play, but moments later, New England took a 7-0 lead on Jamie Collins' blocked Caleb Sturgis field goal attempt, which Kyle Arrington took 62 yards the other way for a score.
Thereafter, both the Patriots offense and defense looked lethargic, like the past two weeks left them with a hangover. Capturing the AFC East with a win might not be so easy after all, as the Patriots clung tenuously to a 14-13 lead.
The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 14, 2014.
But New England sobered up quickly after the halftime break. A LeGarrette Blount TD run on the opening drive of the second half, a Miami three-and-out, a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, a Patrick Chung INT, and a Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski TD pass and, just like that, the score was a mirror image: 31-13. Moments later, after another big Brady-to-Gronk completion, Brady hit wide receiver Julian Edelman in the end zone to make it 38-13.
"We just knew we could play better," Gronkowski stated. "We were terrible the first half as a whole and as myself. We just had to go out there and execute and play together as an offense. The defense was doing a great job and we just had to get out there and make plays and we did in the second half."
New England's 24-point outburst was the franchise's highest total ever in a third quarter. The AFC East – the Patriots' sixth straight – was theirs at that point. Miami wouldn't come close to scoring again.
They downplayed the significance of this game all week, but the Patriots knew what was at stake. Head coach Bill Belichick reportedly used Dolphins players quotes, too, exalting themselves for their Week 1 triumph over New England, as motivational tools. Patriots players insisted they weren't focused on winning the AFC East, but predictably, that's all they wanted to talk about afterward.
"Obviously, each year that is our first goal," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty conceded. "I think everything starts with winning your division, especially going against a team that beat us earlier this year, so we wanted to come out and get a win and we wanted to come out here and we wanted to win big. Going down there and losing Week 1; we've been waiting all season to get back and play this game, so I thought we did a great job in the second half of playing good football and executing."
"It's your goal," Edelman remarked, "every time you go out in the offseason, run routes, run on the beach, when you go to OTAs and work out as a team, go to meetings, lift weights, do all that stuff, it's to put yourself in a position to win the division. I've been fortunate enough to get six."
That's one for each year he's been in the NFL.
"You don't take it for granted," Edelman added, "because this league is tough. Everyone is beatable. It's unbelievable, actually."
If someone so used to winning them remains awed, just imagine how special it is for a player like Darrelle Revis, who just won his first division crown in eight years.
"That's why I came here: to win," Revis chuckled. "It's my first one. I'm very excited. Took a lot of hard work."
Good teams can do that. Can pull themselves out of a mid-game slump and do what it takes to get a win. Especially when a win means a playoff-clinching division title. When it's the Patriots doing it, it's like money in the bank.
"We can also put in the bank that we didn't start fast," Edelman lamented, "and that we have to work on that, but it did show that this team is a mentally tough team. We have to continue to get better at doing that. I assure you that with our coaching staff and everyone here it'll be harped on this next week."
In the post-game locker room, several players donned their AFC East Champion t-shirts and ball caps as they granted media interviews. The shirts, which are normally just generic ones that say AFC East Champs with a Patriots logo, were inscribed in large letters with the phrase, "Patriots run the East."
Editorializing aside, New England can now rest easy in the knowledge that they'll have at least one home game in the playoffs. But as they all said after beating the Dolphins, that's just one step in the ultimate goal. They need to keep winning in the final two weeks of the regular season to ensure either a 1 or 2 seed and that all-important first-round bye on Wild Card Weekend.
Defensive lineman/co-captain Vince Wilfork summed up the day quite succinctly.
"Always feels good to be a champion, AFC East champion," he concluded. "We worked very hard to get to this point. But that's just one step in the right direction. We played pretty well today. Gave up a few plays early but then once again got settled down. We really started playing Patriots football and it showed at the end. Very happy. Always feels good to be AFC East champs. Never gets old."