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PATS on the Back: Week 17 vs. Miami

01-03-11-Vince-Wilfork

14-2 and the top seed in the AFC… who saw this coming? Even the diehards couldn’t have really believed that this year’s version of the New England Patriots would perform the way they have all season long. I’m as big a Pats fan as there is, and I really saw no better than an 11-5 season coming this year, especially given the difficulty of their schedule.

But instead, Tom Brady and the Patriots wrapped up the 2010 regular season Sunday with an impressive 38-7 “squishing of the fish,” a.k.a. the Miami Dolphins, a team that limped to the finish, losing to the Bills and Lions before falling to the Pats, to end their disappointing season at 7-9.

And the win wasn’t even all that difficult, really. The Dolphins were swimming upstream from the opening snap. They couldn’t get out of their own way for the entire 60 minutes. Even the New England reserves looked like a top-seeded 14-2 team against Miami on Sunday.

So the Patriots turn their focus to the playoffs, with their next opponent yet to be determined. But before we shift our attention to playoff football, let’s wrap up this last regular season present and put a bow on it by giving out Week 17’s “PATS on the Back.”

Rob Gronkowski, TE

He might be the biggest snub left off the AFC’s Pro Bowl roster. The rookie tight end caught his tenth touchdown pass of the year Sunday, setting the franchise rookie record on New England’s first drive of the game. “Gronk” had a team-high six receptions for 102 yards against the ‘Fins, almost making fans forget about fellow rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, who missed the final two games of the season with a hip injury. Before the season, everyone questioned whether the Pats could style an offense that would maximize the potential of these two big, young slot men, and shame on us for doubting Brady and Belichick. Gronkowski (and Hernandez, too) helped lead the Pats to new offensive heights in 2010, and the future is definitely bright for the tight end position here in New England. Sunday was Gronk’s first career 100-yard game, but you can put your money on the fact that it won’t be his last.

Julian Edelman, WR/PR

He came into the final game of the season with just four catches for 14 yards through the team’s first 15 games. But on Sunday, second-year man Julian Edelman finally found himself on the game’s stat sheet with some considerable contributions, catching three balls for 72 total yards, including a career-long 40-yarder, not to mention his dazzling 94-yard punt return just before halftime that would give the Pats a 24-0 lead. Edelman’s return was the longest in franchise history, breaking Mike Haynes’ 89-yard record-setting punt return back in 1976. The college quarterback turned NFL receiver has had a very different second season for the Patriots, compared to his rookie campaign last year, a season that saw him haul in 37 balls. With a healthy Wes Welker and Brandon Tate, the return of Deion Branch, and the emergence of the two tight ends, Edelman’s contributions have been mainly relegated to special teams duty, acting as the primary returner for the team this season. He may have had a down year in terms of offensive production, but there’s no doubt that Edelman’s career is on the up-turn, with big things yet to come.

Vince Wilfork, DL

His importance doesn’t always translate to the stat sheet at the end of the day, but on Sunday, the big man in the middle proved his worth and proved to any remaining doubters out there why he’s a perennial Pro Bowler. Vince Wilfork, the defensive line’s chameleon of 2010, has been shifted up and down that D-line all season long, clogging the holes and stopping opposing running backs in their tracks. Wilfork registered two of the team’s five sacks against Miami, and was a major reason why the Dolphins only mustered a measly 44 rushing yards on the day. An “honorable mention” certainly goes out to Tom Brady for all the records he has set, and certainly BenJarvus Green-Ellis, for reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark Sunday, the first back to do it since Corey Dillon in ’04… but this week, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to throw a “PAT on the Back” to my favorite Patriot, #75 himself. Job well done, Big Man!

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