FOXBOROUGH — It’s been a long time since Patriots fans found themselves rooting for the Colts, but as Indianapolis was putting the finishing touches on its win over the Texans Sunday, every New England backer was rejoicing.
By virtue of the Colts beating Houston in a 1 p.m. game, the Patriots knew during pregame warm-ups that they had a first-round bye within their sights — as long as they did their part and won against the Dolphins.
Though New England got off to a bit of a slow start, its 28-0 win meant players and coaches left frigid Gillette Stadium warmed by the knowledge that they were the AFC’s No. 2 seed for the postseason and would get a week off to rest and recover, and start doing some advance work on potential opponents for divisional weekend.
“It was kind of a late Christmas present,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “So, we accept.”
After Houston’s loss, the Broncos wrapped up the No. 1 seed with their win over Kansas City. The Texans, who lost three of their final four games, slid to the third seed; instead of having home-field advantage throughout, they now will host the dangerous Bengals during wild-card weekend.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater said “there were whispers” about Houston’s loss as Patriots players got ready for their finale, but just as their coach had taught them, they knew there was still work to do.
“We knew we couldn’t control what was going on in that game; we had to focus on the Dolphins, a division team that always plays us close,” Slater said.
After news of Houston’s loss, the return of Rob Gronkowski was the day’s other big story. Gronkowski, who broke his left forearm against the Colts Nov. 18 and underwent surgery the next day, played a limited role and was clearly favoring his repaired arm, but the tight end still had two receptions, including a 23-yard touchdown grab.
Naturally, he announced his return with a trademark post-TD spike.
“I got limited reps [about 22], obviously, not that many, but you always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs,” Gronkowski said. “It’s good to get the speed down, the feel of the game. If it’s practice you can go hard, but that was game time.
“It was great to get some reps in, get back into the flow, and be out there with your teammates.”
New England did not score on either of its first two possessions — Miami took the Patriots’ route and deferred after winning the coin toss — opting to go for it on fourth and 6 on the first drive and punt from the Miami 33 on the second.
The winds were strong in the north end of the stadium, which is very likely why Stephen Gostkowski was not brought out to try long field goals in either situation.
But a bad third-down decision by Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill led to the Patriots’ first touchdown. Tannehill’s pass down the sideline for Rishard Matthews was an easy interception for Steve Gregory and gave the offense the ball at the Miami 28.
Gronkowski’s first catch, for 19 yards, set up a goal-to-go pass from Brady to Wes Welker, who ran a beautiful route and fell over the goal line for the touchdown from 9 yards.
“When you play a team like New England that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, you can’t give the ball away,” Miami coach Joe Philbin said. “Early in the game we gave it away and gave them excellent field position, much like we did in our first game [Dec. 2] in the special teams area when we gave them the ball on the 12-yard line. In the first quarter, you don’t want to give them anything.”
Brady finished 22 for 36 for 284 yards and two touchdowns, the one to Welker early and the one to Gronkowski late. In between, Stevan Ridley ran for two scores.
With 74 yards, Ridley finished the season with 1,263, the fifth running back in team history to eclipse 1,200 yards. He also had a dozen rushing touchdowns.
The offense’s sparkplug was Danny Woodhead, who had several key plays, as has been the case several times in recent weeks. Woodhead had a 25-yard catch-and-run during the Patriots’ second touchdown drive, and three touches totaling 31 yards on the third.
Defensively, nearly everyone got in on the fun, including rookie Justin Francis, who recorded three of the seven sacks.
“They did a good job but it’s team defense,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Guys were covered, the quarterback had to hold the ball, they helped the pass rush. Guys rushed well, guys covered well. When the receivers are open, it doesn’t matter what your pass rush is; if you make the quarterback hold the ball, then that helps the pass rush.”
Belichick downplayed Francis’s individual numbers, again saying that it was a team effort to get to Tannehill. Francis said much the same but added, “It was fun. It’s fun taking the field and getting after the quarterback. As a group we are out there having fun together.”
It was the first shutout for the Patriots since their 59-0 domination of the Titans in October 2009.
Miami receiver Brian Hartline said he was “very disappointed. Embarrassed more than disappointed” over not just losing but not posting a single score.
New England, of course, felt quite differently.
“It was great,” Gregory said. “Any time you can look up at the end of the game and see that zero up there on the scoreboard it’s a good thing. We’re proud of our guys and proud of the way we played.”