Four weeks ago, the Patriots played a close game with the Miami Dolphins and clinched the AFC East with the win. Three weeks ago, the Patriots destroyed the Texans at home, giving them the tiebreaker over Houston. Two weeks ago, the Patriots played sloppy early and then mounted a comeback only to fall short against the 49ers. One week ago, the Patriots played poorly early again, this time in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
All of that lead to last night. At home in Gillette Stadium, amidst bitter cold and high wind, the Patriots took on the Dolphins again in their season finale. With the Texans losing earlier in the day to the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots controlled their destiny. A win would solidify at least the #2 seed in the playoffs and a first round bye. A loss would leave them the #3 seed and a first round match at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.
New England went 3-and-out on their first two possessions, with wind playing a factor and leading Bill Belichick to go for it on fourth and seven, rather than try for a field goal. Following a Steve Gregory interception of a pass intended for Rishard Matthews, Tom Brady managed complete a touchdown pass to Wes Welker for the sixth time this season. It was also the 48th straight game with a touchdown pass for Brady, good for second all-time.
In the second quarter, the Patriots added to their lead with a pair of short runs by Steven Ridley to take at 21-0 lead at halftime. The Dolphins, meanwhile just could not seem to make anything happen. Even a 41-yard field goal attempt went wide left, after beginning a little to the right of the uprights, due to the high winds. On their best scoring opportunity, inside the 5-yard line of the Patriots, Ryan Tannehill fumbled the ball and it was recovered on the 1-yard line by Dont’a Hightower.
And in a sight not seen for several weeks, Tom Brady finished off the night with a 23-yard pass to returning tight end Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown and the customary Gronk spike. That last touchdown gave the Patriots a 28-0 lead, which then became the final score just over nine minutes later.
While the offense did a fantastic job, given the conditions and a Miami defense that had given the Patriots some problems in their last meeting, down in Miami, it was the Patriots defense that really stood out. In addition to the interception and the fumble recovery, they managed to sack Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill seven times, including three sacks by undrafted rookie defensive lineman Justin Francis. Francis, who had a quiet start to his season has taken his recent opportunity for playing time and really turned it on here at the end of the year.
With Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos winning easily against the Kansas City Chiefs in Denver, they have clinched the #1 seed and home field advantage through the playoffs. That leaves Tom Brady and the Patriots with the #2 seed and a first round bye. If things progress the way they usually do when these two quarterbacks are in the post-season, then it’s likely we will see another Brady-Manning matchup in the AFC Championship on January 20th. But this time, it will be in Denver against a Broncos team that, while the Patriots have beaten them in their last three meetings, still are the team that seems to have given the Patriots the most difficulty over the years, especially on the road.
The Patriots will next play on the weekend of January 12-13 at home during the Divisional playoff round against the Texans, Ravens or Colts.