When the broadcast of today's game started, CBS showed some mind-boggling stats abou the Patriots history with Miami. For starters, the Patriots have lost only three roads games in December since 2003, which is pretty crazy in and of itself. However, more intriguing is the fact that all three of those losses came in Miami. Also worth noting is that the Patriots have dropped only 15 divisional games since 2001, of which seven were to the Dolphins. Patriots/Jets always seems to be the marquee divisional matchup, and for legit reasons (Boston vs. New York, Rex Ryan, Mangini, recent playoff history), but if anyone has been a true challenge year in and year out during the Brady/Belichick era, it's the Miami Dolphins.
I'm short on time, so I won't dive into in-depth specifics, but I thought this game told us a lot about who this football team is and how far they've come since the start of the season. The Patriots were missing some major pieces like Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, and Chandler Jones. They were without Jermaine Cunningham, and Dan Connolly was injured at the start of the game. Still, on the road, in a notoriously tough environment for them, with two huge games on the horizon that could have easily turned this into trap game, the Patriots did what they needed to do to seal up the victory. And not only did they seal it up, but they did so despite facing a fair bit of adversity.
This game wasn't like the past two weeks against the Colts and Jets where they went into steamroller mode and never looked back. The Patriots had multiple opportunities where they could have folded and gave this game away. This is exactly the type of game that they lost against Arizona, Baltimore, and Seatte. The running game was stalling out, and Brady was getting pressured and hit. They failed to win the turnover battle. Nine weeks ago, this would have been the type of game where the secondary got carved up for huge plays and ultimately did the team in. Today, the defense held their own, and may have actually won the game for this team. Other than one long drive at the end of the 2nd quarter, the Pats defense held Miami to three field goals, one of which was off a turnover. They got a decent amount of pressure on Tannehill and continued to hit hard and jar the ball loose, even though they didn't get good bounces off those fumbles.
And the offense, despite having a sub-par day, showed huge signs of progress as well. As the second half began, the Patriots were teetering on the edge of becoming one-dimensional again. The first half running game was horrendous and had forced the Patriots into a "throw, throw, throw" mentality. Anyone who's watched this team long enough knows that if you can get the Patriots to abandon the run AND start hitting Brady, that's when you have New England right where you want them. The ten-point lead the Pats were nursing throughout most of the second half only felt remotely safe because of how well the defense had been playing. Still, you knew the Phins were only one big play away from making it a one-score game putting the Patriots into choke-mode.
That's why the final big drive by the offense, when the Dolphins cut the lead to seven, was so huge. Again, this is where New England found themselves going three-and-out during the first stretch of the season. When things got tight late in the game, the Patriots' offense started to sputter.
Not, this time however. Brady and McDaniels re-established the running game, and methodically drove the team down the field for a 16-play, 77-yard drive that took up nearly half the quarter and forced Miami to burn their timeouts. After Gostkowski hit the chip-shot to put the lead back up to ten, the Patriots had all but won the "hats and tee-shirts".
There have been three moments this season, where I've watched this Patriots team mature from the one that was throwing the game away in Seattle, to the one that earned a division title today. Fittingly enough, all three of those games came against AFC East opponents. In Week 7 vs. New York, the Patriots proved they could turn the karma dial and actually be lucky instead of persistently unliucky. In Week 9 against Buffalo, they were actually able to win one of these tough games on their own merit, but only by the skin of their teeth. Today, the Patriots fought through the adversity and willed their way to a win while actually looking like a championship football team. Today's game wasn't pretty, but from the start to the finish, there was no doubt which team was in control.
And so I'll wrap up with one last mind-blowing stat. It is now the 12th season of the Brady/Belichick era, and while the Patriots have "only" won 10 division titles in that span, it's been 12 season in a row where they will finish with the best record in the AFC East. The two years they didn't win, the Pats lost tie-breakers. That's twelve straight years where the Bills, Jets, and Phins have failed to top them. In todays' NFL, that's just incredible. Now, with a win in Week 17 against Miami, the Patriots have a shot at sweeping the AFC East for just the second time as well, with 2007's undefeated seaon being the only prior time they accomplished that feat.