By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — The Patriots took the field on Sunday and did a whole lot more than just win a football game.
They restored order.
With the 3-0 Miami Dolphins making a Week 4 visit, the power dynamic of the AFC East was at stake. Thanks to a weak showing in Jacksonville and a flat performance a week later in Detroit, the Patriots were staring down the barrel of a 1-3 start to the year and a three-game deficit in their own division.
But, by way of a 38-7 smashing of the previously unbeaten Dolphins, the Patriots put the football universe back in alignment.
They’ve restored that order in the AFC East, where the best team remains the New England Patriots. And they’ve restored order within the confines of their own facility, after facing the real risk of having doubt seeping in for a struggling team.
The doubt has been replaced with confidence, and the panic buttons can be put into storage. At least for the time being, the Patriots are still the Patriots.
Instead of the passing defense that got picked apart in consecutive weeks by Blake Bortles and Matthew Stafford, the silver helmets were swarming on Sunday. Ryan Tannehill never had a chance, facing pressure on nearly every dropback and looking at tightly covered receivers across the board. Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore had no room to run.
And that was only on one side of the ball.
Offensively, despite two uncharacteristically sloppy interceptions from Tom Brady, the Patriots moved the ball with ease. Brady averaged nearly eight yards per attempt and threw three touchdowns. Sony Michel averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and James White averaged 5.5. Four receivers recorded 40 or more receiving yards, and three different players caught touchdowns.
It was a game where the Patriots built an early 3-0 lead, extended it to 10-0 in the second quarter, and then turned it into a 24-0 halftime advantage. The Dolphins were left stunned — and they’d only fall farther out of the game from there.
While the season is now only 25 percent complete, the impact of Sunday’s win cannot be overstated. With a loss, the Patriots would have lost three consecutive games for the first time since 2002. The Dolphins would have been 4-0, holding a three-game advantage over New England, and all of Boston would be spending the following days discussing the Patriots’ postseason chances. Not their chances of winning the division; their chances of just making the playoffs. Everything else would be on the table — Brady’s age, Bill Belichick’s roster decisions, Rob Gronkowski’s offseason unhappiness, the lingering impact of the Malcolm Butler Super Bowl benching, and so on. The Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins trades would be coming back to light, just to pile on.
Things in Foxboro might have actually gotten to be as miserable as anonymous sources have described it to be over the past nine months.
Instead, everybody can take a breather. The sky can stop falling. And with a 1-3 Colts team coming to town on a short week, the Patriots are in position to essentially put themselves in the same exact position they were in a year ago.
Though it feels like ancient history now, there was widespread panic and apprehension in the region last September, after the Patriots lost at home not just to the Chiefs on opening night but also to the Panthers in Week 4. Sitting at 2-2 through four weeks, the Patriots had the NFL’s worst defense, and there was some concern that the season might slip away early.
But last year’s Patriots also played on Thursday night in Week 5, and Belichick’s team managed to squeak out a victory without Gronkowski on the road. At 3-2, the Patriots came off their mini-bye and ripped off seven straight wins. And just like that, the 2-2 Patriots sat at 10-2. They’d finish the season 13-3, tied for the best record in the NFL. Though those defensive woes would rear their ugly head in the Super Bowl, the fact is that the Patriots finished one or two plays short of winning a championship. That’s a position every team hopes to find itself in every February.
Whether or not this year’s team can follow suit and restore excellence to Foxboro remains to be seen. But winning in the fashion they did on Sunday, against the team occupying first place for the time being, at least reestablished the possibility. A loss at home — or even a narrow victory wrought with exposed flaws — would have kept alive all of the doomsday scenarios.
Instead, they’re 2-2, keeping their heads above water, with the chance to go on a run and once again make the September slip-ups a far-off memory by season’s end.
Never has the difference between 1-3 and 2-2 been so stark, and never has a September win over the Dolphins seemed so significant. The Patriots picked a great time to once again appear to be capable of being the class of the AFC.
They’re not there yet. They’re just 2-2. They’re likely, if not certain, to lose at least a game or two the rest of the way. But they have a chance to make that 3-2 in just a matter of days, and they’ll have the services of Julian Edeman at their disposal for that effort.
By showing up to the field and playing energized football, and by stepping on the throat of a divisional opponent that had every reason to feel good heading into the day, the Patriots sent a loud and clear message that it is not time to close the book on the reign of Brady and Belichick. Not yet.