BOSTON (CBS) — The first half was pretty ugly for the New England Patriots, but they bounced back in a big way in the final 30 minutes against the Miami Dolphins and clinched their sixth straight AFC East crown with a 41-13 victory on Sunday.
The Patriots are the proud owners of some new hats and t-shirts, and have secured their spot in the postseason. While clinching the AFC East isn’t their end goal, it’s their first goal in reaching that ultimate prize in February.
But before we get too far ahead, here are the Ups and Downs from Sunday’s win over Miami.
Offense Responds After Poor First Half
The offense was pretty bad in the first half, and we’ll detail all of that in the Downs. But they responded in a big way coming out of halftime, and put up 24 points in the third quarter.
Rob Gronkowski was held without a catch in the first half, but Tom Brady went his way on the first play from scrimmage in the second half — a 34-yard hookup that set the Patriots up at the Miami 45. Two plays later, Brady hit Brandon LaFell for 14 yards down to the Miami 19.
After a one-yard loss and an incomplete pass to Julian Edelman, Brady and the Patriots were facing a 3rd-and-11. It looked like the offense, after moving into Miami territory, was going to stall again and have to settle for three points. But Brady had other plans.
The Pats’ QB called his own number and scrambled for 17 yards down to the Miami 3-yard line. He had some words with Walt Aikens after the run — the third longest run of his career — and it fired up an offense that was in need of a spark.
“I think it was a play we needed to make, so it was good to make it at the time,” Brady said after the game, adding he thought about sliding at the end of the run but was too “pissed off” to do so. “Whatever it takes. That’s what matters, and all the guys responded the way we wanted to. It was good to finish them off the way we wanted to.”
“It’s crazy because I actually told him, ‘If you break one today, you get down.’ And he was like, ‘No, I’m going to try and run somebody over.’ He always jokes around like that and he actually did it,” receiver Brandon LaFell said after the win. “It was kind of good; it was in slow motion, but it was good.”
LeGarrette Blount tumbled into the end zone from three yards out the very next play, and the Patriots offense was on their way.
The defense also fed off that opening drive by the offense, as they forced a three-and-out on Miami’s next drive.
Special Teams Continues To Be Special
The Patriots never trailed in this one thanks to some more spectacular plays by their special teams unit.
On Miami’s first drive of the game, Jamie Collins blocked a Caleb Sturgis 41-yard field goal attempt, and Kyle Arrington returned it 62-yards for the touchdown. It was the third blocked field goal by the Patriots this season, a franchise record, and the fourth special teams touchdown this season.
Points Off Turnovers
The Patriots defense picked off Ryan Tannehill twice in this one, and the offense turned around and scored a touchdown both times.
Duron Harman came down with an interception in the first half, returning it 60 yards to the Miami eight-yard line. That set up a three-yard Shane Vereen touchdown run a few plays later that put New England up 14-3.
Then in the third quarter, Patrick Chung intercepted Tannehill as he was looking for Lamar Miller over the middle, setting the offense up at the Miami 27-yard line. One play later, Brady hooked up with Gronk to put the Patriots up 31-13.
That’s the complimentary football that Bill Belichick loves: The defense setting the offense up with good field position, and the offense capitalizing.
Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower Return
Jones had been out since October 16 with a hip injury, but made the most in his return with seven total tackles and 1.5 sacks. He was thrown right into the fire, playing 55 snaps on Sunday according to ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss.
Hightower missed last week’s win in San Diego with a shoulder issues, but made his presence felt on Sunday with eight total tackles, half a sack, and exploded into the backfield for a tackle for loss on Miller in the first half.
Jones and Hightower are two key contributors to the New England defense, and both made an impact on Sunday. Fittingly, they both combined for a sack on the defense’s final play of the day.
BONUS: Gostkowski Passes Vinatieri
Stephen Gostkowski became the Patriots’ all-time points leader with a 35-yard field goal in the third quarter, passing Adam Vinatieri’s mark of 1,158 points.
Gostkowski was two-for-two in Sunday’s win, and is 31-for-33 on his field goal attempts for the season.
1st Half Offense
The Patriots couldn’t seem to find a rhythm in the first half, and had just 102 yards of total offense when they went into the locker room.
End Of 1st Half
The Patriots might want to burn the game tape for the final 40 seconds of the first half, when all three phases of the game failed to do their job.
Pinned back deep in their own zone, Bill Belichick opted to run the ball three times in hopes of killing the clock. Shane Vereen couldn’t get the 10 yards they needed, and Miami used their three times outs to get the ball back.
Miami rookie Jarvis Landry returned Ryan Allen’s punt 32 yards to the New England 32-yard line, setting up a short field for Tannehill and the offense. On the very next play, Tannehill hit Mike Wallace for a great touchdown catch (originally ruled incomplete but reversed after replay) to cut the Patriots’ lead to 14-13.
The offense failed, special teams failed and the defense failed, all in a span of 29 seconds.
Arrington, Connolly Injured
The Patriots didn’t escape this one without a few injury concerns. Cornerback Kyle Arrington left in the second quarter with a hamstring injury and did not return. He’s been big on defense as New England’s slot corner, and likely would have been on Wallace instead of rookie Malcolm Butler at the end of the first half.
Starting left guard Dan Connolly also got banged up on Sunday, and did not return after leaving the game in the third quarter with a neck injury.
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