The New England Patriots clinched the AFC East division title with a 12-0 shutout of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The 11-2 Patriots became the first team in the league to clinch their division and are at least for now the best team in the conference, holding tie-breaker advantages over 11-2 Kansas City. While the next and final three games will determine whether the Patriots get home field advantage, nothing can take away what is now a guaranteed playoff berth.
The Patriots did it with defense on Sunday, shutting down Miami's rushing attack and forcing the Dolphins to make a franchise-record 11 punts. The defense when playing at home is perhaps the best in the league and has now prevented opponents from scoring an offensive touchdown in Foxboro since Oct. 5th. The defense both stopped the other team's offense and provided some of its own, accounting for all but three of the Patriots' 12 total points while racking up five sacks and two interceptions. At least three other interceptions were there for the taking as well.
But the rock-hard ball was not easy to handle for either team, as both played in the frigid 14-degree atmosphere of a stadium as packed with snow drifts as it was with fans. The onlookers scaled huge piles of the white stuff to watch the game because many seats were inaccessible due to the snow. And the fans had ready-made confetti when it was time to celebrate: the stadium was filled with puffs of snow hurled into the air in the fourth quarter when the Patriots' big-play defense put the game away. (Meanwhile, the fans whose snowballs hit the field and in some cases the players, including a couple of hits on Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler, were hopefully pulled from their seats, permanently.)
A look at some of the principals in the big win:
The Patriots rookie free safety made arguably the defensive play of the game.
Mid-way through the second quarter, with the Patriots holding a tenuous 3-0 lead, the Dolphins found themselves backed-up on their own 10-yard line. They went to the ground with their star running back Ricky Williams, who gained 9 yards in two plays and gave his team some breathing room. On the next play, a 3rd-and-1, Miami swallowed up New England's run blitz – safety Rodney Harrison broke through the line but was stopped by Dolphins fullback Rob Konrad – and Williams exploded past the line through a right guard gap.
With the Patriots playing run all the way and bringing most of their players to the line of scrimmage, there was little to stop Williams once he broke into the secondary. Little besides Eugene Wilson, that is. Williams nearly burned the rookie, but Wilson spun and dove for Williams, catching the running back's shoe tip. It was just enough to trip him up and limit what could have been a game-breaking 80-yard touchdown run to a 16-yard gain.
There was no one else there to stop it from happening. Cornerback Ty Law was blocked on the outside. Harrison had blitzed and was stuck in the Miami backfield. Without Wilson's outstanding athletic play, the Dolphins could have broken the game wide open: a 7-3 lead over a Patriots offense that generated next to nothing for the day would have been an enormous advantage.
Instead, the Patriots defense was able to re-group and slowly gain momentum over the rest of the game. Wilson's was but the first of many big plays that would prevent the Dolphins from putting a single point on the board this day, but it may have been the early key that allowed the defense's confidence to emerge in full.
While Wilson's tackle was a key play, it was easily overshadowed in drama and excitement by another made later by linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
With nine minutes remaining in the game, the Patriots still held just a 3-0 lead. One big play either way could end it. And it was the Patriots who made it.
Backed up inside their own 5-yard line, the Dolphins decided to try to pass their way out of bad field position. It was a mistake. Fiedler targeted receiver Chris Chambers coming across the field from the right sideline and went to him. Fiedler never saw Bruschi hiding behind his defensive linemen, and Bruschi made a dynamic leaping grab to take away the ball. He walked into the end zone, sealing the game for the Patriots.
It was the fourth straight interception that Bruschi has returned for a touchdown, and each was as athletic a play as a linebacker can make. He did it against Donovan McNabb earlier this year, and he nearly strained the oblique muscles of all fans watching him stretch to take one away from Joey Harrington in last year's Thanksgiving Day win over the Lions.
The Dolphins' situation and play selection was eerily similar to last year's season finale, when the Dolphins failed to hold a lead over New England in part because they decided to pass despite being backed up in their own zone rather than run it with the powerful Williams. The decision last year allowed the Patriots time to score and force an overtime that they eventually won; this year the Dolphins' decision allowed the Patriots to put the game away. It was a curious choice given Miami's ability to run out of the end zone earlier in the game (see the second quarter, for instance, and Wilson's touchdown-saving tackle).
The Dolphins were backed up in the shadow of their own goal posts just before the Bruschi interception because of a very good kick from the Patriots' new punter. Twice during the game, Barnard put the ball into a corner of the field and had the ball roll out of bounds. A third time, the Dolphins were able to field the kick but again it was in the corner just by the end zone pylon and the Patriots were able to quickly descend on the returner and prevent any run back.
The rookie Barnard replaced veteran Ken Walter last week after Walter had climbed down to the ranks of the worst statistical punting numbers in the league. Barnard was a four-year starter at the University of Maryland who tried out with the Bears this summer. He won a punting contest that reportedly featured 12 kickers to claim the available Patriots job.
Barnard performed well. His 10 punts went for 365 yards, a 36.5 yards-per-punt average, including one touchback and 4 punts inside Miami's 20-yard line with a long of 49 yards. Compare that to the Dolphins' outstanding punter, 9-year punter Matt Turk, whose 11 punts traveled 406 yards for a 36.9 yards-per-punt average, with one touchback but just one kick inside New England's 20. He did have a long of 56 yards but Barnard, in just his first game as a pro and in tough weather conditions, can only be said to have at least proven he belongs.
But he was not the only new punter for the Patriots. The team's eleventh punt of the game was made by quarterback Tom Brady from the Miami 37-yard line. The offense lined-up to run a play on 4th and 10, which seemed strange until Brady dropped the ball to his foot for a pooch punt. Receiver David Givens sprinted down field to cover the ball at the Miami 1-yard line. This led to New England's final two points of the game, a game-ending sack of Fielder in his own end zone for a safety.
The Game's Biggest Hit
If there was one tone-setting play by the New England defense, it would have to be that of Ted Johnson. In the first half, the veteran linebacker crashed into the Miami line with such force and velocity that he literally shattered the helmet of Dolphins guard Jamie Nails. The Patriots stuffed Williams on the play but the fact that a helmet split in two lay on the ground at the end of the play was the symbolic representation of what would be the Patriots' defensive dominance over the Dolphins.
Harrison should not escape mention even if some of his teammates had bigger plays. Harrison came to play, as they say, and was the emotional leader of the team. His energy and enthusiasm were just exploding on the field, and he did have one big play all his own, literally exploding into Fiedler for a sack and a forced fumble that ended a potential Dolphins scoring drive (the Dolphins had reached the New England 10-yard line until linebacker Mike Vrabel recovered the Harrison-forced fumble). In a season of nearly-uncountable free agent and draft successes, Harrison must rank among the best of the Patriots' front office moves.
The Patriots offense should not go completely without mention and running back Antowain Smith deserves credit for this win. Yes, he only averaged a paltry 2.2 yards per carry. Yes, he only totaled 60 yards despite 27 carries and a desperate need for running production given the weather conditions.
However, Smith did have some key runs. He helped with the early field position battle, carrying the ball on 5 of 9 offensive plays on the team's first drive which went to the Miami 38-yard line. He converted a key fourth down on the offense's only scoring drive. And he helped the Patriots run the clock down to the two-minute warning at the end of the game.
He also was just as good as Ricky Williams, who had 25 carries for 68 yards, a 2.7 yards-per-carry average. Williams' longest run went for 16 yards while Smith's went for 20.
Smith represented another important personnel decision for the New England coaches. They deactivated Mike Cloud, who leads the team with 5 rushing touchdowns, and instead went with the bigger, tougher Smith to grind it out against the league's 4th-best run defense. He did just enough to win, which is all that is ever asked of any Patriots player.
And they keep doing just enough to win. The Patriots are now 7-0 this season against teams with winning records and they have won 9 straight games.
The Patriots play the Jacksonville Jaguars next week. Keep repeating that fact over and over. With the division already sealed and the Jaguars bringing with them a 4-and-9 record, it would be very easy to look past this game. The Patriots cannot. Playoff seeding is still an open question and as they showed yesterday, home field advantage particularly in New England in wintertime cannot be underestimated. The Patriots need to win their tenth in a row.