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Quick Reaction: Patriots Clinch AFC East in Less-Than-Inspiring Victory

John Bazemore/AP (http://bostonglobe.com/sports/2012/12/02/patriots-dolphins-game-preview/ko7HQcQJLbVvU4msfKIxLN/story.html)

The Patriots wrapped up the AFC East in the first week of December, but this will not be the biggest takeaway from this team on the day. New England played groggy at times, and sloppy on the field. It was enough for a win, and the Patriots will head to the playoffs as AFC East champs once again. There is a tough schedule coming up for the Pats, but it is nice to know that they will play postseason football.

First Quarter

The Dolphins started with the ball, and it felt like very early on that this team was going to be a pushover. After three straight play, Miami was punting. After a bad snap on the punt, the Patriots made the tackle on the punter and got the ball well in Miami territory. They cashed in four plays later with a 2-yard rush for a score by Stevan Ridley. An offensive holding penalty on Donald Thomas could have hurt them, but Tom Brady landed two strikes to Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez to get the first down before scoring.

Miami was forced to punt on their next drive, as the defensive front was getting excellent pressure up front, with Vince Wilfork cleaning up Reggie Bush in the backfield on one occasion. The following Pats drive showed some life, but inconsistency was a major factor. Hernandez dropped a strike from Brady that was right to him; Brady missed Edelman on a deep ball where he had a three-step lead on the defenders in the endzone; a Sebastian Vollmer holding penalty stalled the drive in Miami territory and Stephen Gostkowski missed another kick, albeit a 49-yarder, but that shouldn’t be an issue for a place kicker of his talent. There was also a questionable opportunity for the refs to call another intentional grounding on Brady (he’s been close all season), but it went uncalled and the game moved forward.

The Dolphins’ third drive looked much more effective, as Bush gashed the defense for chunks of yards at a time seemingly at will. As Miami drove into New England territory, the defense stiffened and Vince Wilfork brought some huge pressure on Ryan Tannehill to stall the drive. Brandon Fields managed an excellent kick for the Dolphins, pinning the Patriots inside the ten.

Brady made a good throw at the start of this drive, hitting Aaron Hernandez in the flat, who made a nice stop-and-go move to get by a linebacker to pick up the first down and more. He followed that up with a total stinker, forcing a pass to Hernandez on the sideline that got picked off and run back for a score. A clipping penalty on the Dolphins managed to bring back the touchdown. The Patriots caught a huge break on Miami’s possession, as the refs missed a blatant face masking call on Kyle Arrington, who twisted Tannehill’s head as he was bringing him down on a scramble. Miami settled for three, and the Pats closed out the quarter on the kick return. Of note here, Matt Slater left injured; the special teams captain has been an extremely important player on that unit for years.

Second Quarter

The Pats started the second quarter with a quick three-and-out, but Miami got nailed with roughing the kicker, which proved extremely costly. Welker and Hernandez each made good catches to pick up first downs, and Welker ended up hauling in Brady’s only touchdown of the day on a screen pass from inside the ten.

When Miami got the ball back, the Patriots defensive pressure really stepped up, as Trevor Scott burst around the outside edge and forced a strip sack, recovered by Vince Wilfork. It was good to see the pressure stay charged even with Chandler Jones and Jermaine Cunningham out this week (injury/suspension). Brady ended up getting sacked on first down, which led to the offense settling for a field goal, which Gostkowski nailed.

After another touchback on the day from the special teams unit, the Dolphins got to work and quickly dug a nice deep hole with two penalties to push them to their own 5. They managed to get the first on two plays, with a Patriots 12-men-on-the-field penalty as well. Miami continued to drive successfully all the way down the field, with Bush having his way again. Of note, Jake Long was knocked out of the game in the first quarter, so he was running behind a weakened offensive line. Kyle Love picked up a sack on the drive, but once Miami reached the goal line, coach Joe Philbin drew up a brilliant play-action quarterback bootleg that had the Pats, me, and multiple camera men confused. The game went to halftime at a score of 10-7.

Third Quarter

Both teams started the third with three-and-outs, and a defensive pass interference call on Karlos Dansby during the next series put the Pats in Miami territory, but they were unable to capitalize. After a few back-and-forth drives resulting in punts from either side, the Patriots took over with a little under three in the quarter and managed to put together a more sustained drive. A mix of run and pass and a face-masking penalty got the Patriots all the way to the Miami 2-yard line, but the offensive lined opened up and allowed two Tom Brady sacks, leading to a Gostkowski field goal.

These are the drives that the Patriots have to be able to finish with a touchdown on versus good teams. This lack of execution in the red zone will not be alright in the upcoming two weeks versus a pair of good teams in Houston and San Francisco.

Fourth Quarter

The Dolphins took over after the Patriots field goal early in the fourth, and Ryan Tannehill engineered an excellent drive of his own. Two big plays came between the thirties, as he hit Hartline for a 22-yard gain and then went back that way and got a defensive pass interference on Aqib Talib, who had a less-than-stellar performance covering Hartline on the day. He managed to drive all the way to the New England 7-yard line before a sack by Jerod Mayo forced a field goal to make the game 20-13.

The following drive was going to be extremely important for the Pats, as they needed to put a score on the board while grinding out as much clock as possible through first downs to really ice the game. Tom Brady and the offense have struggled mightily at times this season winning games in the fourth quarter while holding a lead, but this drive was very much different. Stevan Ridley and the offensive line were the main focal point of a drive that went for 77 yards on 16 plays and took seven minutes and eighteen seconds off the clock, culminating in a field goal with a little over a minute to play. Scott Zolak from CBS Sports Radio put it very eloquently when he called it, simply, a “big-boy drive.”

One thing that Bill Belichick loves more than anything else is winning football games while having plenty of tape to study what people did wrong, and the following Miami drive provided just that. Mass confusion in the secondary led to two 28-yard bombs by Tannehill and a field goal for Miami with 36 seconds left. Imagine if they managed to collect the ensuing onside kick and throw a few more of those to force the game to overtime. This was not the case, though, and the Pats ran out the clock to end the game.

The Pats come back to Foxboro next weekend to face the Houston Texans on Monday night football.

Stats courtesy of NFL.com. Quotes courtesy of CBS Sports Radio.

About DMac - @dmac4226

I grew up on Boston Sports during the championship era. Nothing has supported my love for Boston sports more than seeing three Lombardi Trophies, two World Series Championships, a Stanley Cup, and an NBA Championship all before turning 21. That will never stop me complaining when one of my teams falls on its face, and there will always be game film to go over, which is why I will always have something to write about.

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