The New England offense makes the Sports Center highlights and creates the headlines, but it is their defense and special teams that carried the team on their shoulders to victory Sunday against Miami. With the win the Patriots clinched the AFC East title, which is the Pats sixth straight division title and 14th since Robert Kraft became the team’s owner. When the game was still in doubt it was the defense and special teams that created a 14-3 lead, before the offense shook off the cobwebs from the two-game road trip and six-game gauntlet against some of the best teams in the NFL.

Miami opened the game with a 50-yard pass completion to Mike Wallace, but the Patriot defense stood the Dolphins up on three running plays to force a 41-yard field goal attempt. Jamie Collins blocked the kick and Kyle Arrington scooped up the ball, returning it 62 yards for a touchdown. While one usually does not classify a play on the first series of the game as a turning point, this play was a ten-point swing and certainly a critical play. Coming on the heels of Brandon Bolden’s key block last week at San Diego, you have to tip your hat to the Patriot special team players and ST coach Scott O’Brien. Even though this was a field goal attempt and not a punt, an ancillary benefit going forward is that opponents will be more careful in their protection going forward, which should open things up for the Patriots on their returns.

The New England defense was just getting started. In the second quarter Ryan Tannehill threw a pass just a bit too high, and the Patriots took advantage. Duron Harmon was in position to offer support, and as it turned out he was in perfect position to catch the tipped pass. Harmon returned the ball 60 yards to set up a touchdown three plays later, giving the Pats a 14-3 lead. As it turned out that cushion was very important as Miami came back at the end of the half to cut the lead to 14-13.

The Patriots have won 77 times in a row when leading at halftime at home, going back to 2000. As has been the case in all but three games this year, the Pats poured it on on both sides of the ball after the break. The Pats scored on the opening drive of the third quarter to up the lead to eight, forced a three and out on defense, and then scored again. Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal gave him 1,160 career points, breaking Adam Vinatieri’s record as the franchise’s all-time scoring leader.

On the first play from scrimmage after the ensuing kickoff the defense came up big once again. Patrick Chung intercepted a tipped Tannehill pass at the Miami 37, and returned it to the 27-yard line. One play later Brady hit Gronk down the seam for another score, and just like that the Patriots were up by 18 points, 31-13.

Game over.

The New England Patriots have long excelled on special teams and at forcing turnovers. Those traits helped mask deficiencies in their pass rush and pass coverage in the years following the Pats last Super Bowl victory. Now that New England has improved their pass rush as well as assembling one of the best defensive secondaries in the league, Pats fans have legitimate reasons to be very optimistic of this team’s chances in the post-season. The current offense may not rival that of the record setting 2007 squad, but overall this team is more well balanced and more difficult for an opponent to game plan for than any other Patriot team since the one that won the franchise’s third championship in a four-year span ten years ago. That’s great news for Pats fans, and bad news for all 31 other NFL teams.

 

Notes:

– With the victory, Bill Belichick got his 229th career win. That ties him with Curly Lambeau for the fourth-most combined regular-season and playoff wins by a head coach in the history of the NFL. Belichick is big on the history of the NFL, so even though he may not say so publicly, you know this has to mean a lot to him to reach this point on the all-time leader board.

– Rob Ninkovich had a sack, giving him three straight seasons with at least eight sacks. Nink is the first Patriot to accomplish that feat since Hall of Famer Andre Tippett did so from 1984-87. Not bad for a guy who fans are calling for the team to replace and upgrade on an annual basis.

– Rob Gronkowski was shut out in the first half and finished with only three receptions, but they were good for 96 yards. That puts him at 1,093 yards for the season, and makes him the first tight end in franchise history to have two seasons with 1,000 yards receiving.

– Chandler Jones was active for the first time since the week 7 game on October 16 against the Jets, when he injured his hip. Jones was a dominant presence, and registered 7 tackles (4 solo) and 1½ sacks on the afternoon.

– The Dolphins had early success throwing to tight end Charles Clay. The Patriots – who have often had trouble with opposing tight ends – adjusted by having Devin McCourty cover Clay; Clay was not a factor from that point on.

– Brandon Browner picked up two more pass interference penalties. Browner now leads the Patriots with 14 penalty calls against him.

– Kyle Arrington left the game with a hamstring injury in the first half. His replacement, Malcolm Butler, was beat twice on long passes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the secondary’s forgotten man – Alfonzo Dennard – replaces Butler on the active roster next week.

– Dan Connolly left the game with a neck injury, and was replaced by Josh Kline. No offense to Kline, but I would much prefer to see Connolly out there.

 

 

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