Patriots 38, Dolphins 7

Happy ending

Patriots finish regular season with blowout of Dolphins

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By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 2, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots get a break. And the rest of the NFL catches a break because no one has to step in front of Bill Belichick's buzzsaw of a football team next week.

The Patriots closed out a remarkable, enjoyable, and unexpected regular season at 14-2 with a 38-7 demolition of the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. Next stop: the AFC divisional playoffs, where the Patriots will host a game at Gillette Stadium on Sun., Jan. 16 at 4:30 p.m. The regular season-closing conquest allowed the Patriots to go into the playoffs riding an eight-game win streak. Today also marked the eighth straight game the Patriots won and scored more than 30 points.

Perhaps of more importance than the score or any of the icing-on-the-cake records was the fact that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who made the start and played into the third quarter, emerged unscathed. The presumptive NFL MVP finished 10 of 16 for 199 yards with two touchdowns, extending his NFL-record interception-less streak to 335 throws. He also became the sixth player in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass in all 16 regular season games.

"The greatest advantage we have is we don't have to play next week and we play at home the following week," said Brady. "So that's really what we've earned to this point. I don't think we've earned anything more than that."

With home field throughout the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye locked up, Patriots coach Bill Belichick took precautions with a few key players, resting receivers Deion Branch, who had been battling a knee injury, and Wes Welker, who 364 days ago blew out his knee in last season's regular-season finale in Houston. Even the absence of those two players couldn't slow the Patriots' prolific attack Sunday.

"It was good for some of the players who haven't had as many opportunities in recent games," said Belichick. "That'll serve us well."

New England didn't have anything to prove or play for against Miami, but you wouldn't have known that from how the Patriots jumped on the disappointing Dolphins from the start to build a 24-0 halftime lead.

Devin McCourty intercepted the third throw of the game from Miami quarterback Chad Henne, who was benched twice for Tyler Thigpen during the game, stepping in front of a pass intended for Brandon Marshall to collect his seventh pick-off of a Pro Bowl rookie season.

Just six plays later, Brady found rookie Rob Gronkowski, who had the first 100-yard receiving day of his career (six catches for 102 yards), for a 13-yard touchdown as the Patriots went up 7-0 just 4 minutes and 24 seconds into the action. With his 10th touchdown grab of the season, Gronkowski set the Patriots' record for TD catches in a season, eclipsing Ben Coates's mark of nine in 1996.

The Patriots extended their first-quarter lead to 14-0 after Miami's Dan Carpenter misfired on a 40-yard field goal. Julian Edelman followed a 22-yard catch-and-run with a 40-yard reception off a nifty fake end around pass. One play later BenJarvus Green-Ellis (20 carries for 80 yards) barreled in from a yard out.

Another Dolphins turnover (Ricky Williams fumble) led to a Shayne Graham field goal with 1:41 left in the half. Edelman pushed the lead to 24-0 with a dazzling, club-record 94-yard punt return with 18 seconds left in the half. It was the Patriots' ninth non-offensive touchdown of the season, tying the team record set in 1961.

With Brady still in the game, the Patriots took the opening kickoff of the second half and added to their lead -- and Miami's misery. Brady hit Alge Crumpler with his 36th touchdown pass of the season to make it 31-0. It was Brady's last throw of the game. Brian Hoyer, who had entered for four snaps (three plays and a penalty) in the first half, replaced Brady for good with 10:51 left in the third.

"The decisions we made were the same as they always are: What's best for the football team," Belichick said on the decision to play Brady into the second half. "We did what we felt was best for the football team. Everybody else may not see it that way. But that's what we try to do. We try to do what's best for the team." Hoyer picked up where TB12 left off, throwing a 42-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Tate for his first NFL touchdown pass. That made it 38-0 Patriots with 6:33 left in the third.

The only suspense after that was whether Green-Ellis would get his 1,000-yard season. He did early in the fourth quarter. Green-Ellis ran for 10 yards on fourth and 16 from the Miami 19 to give him 1,008 yards for the season. He was congratulated by his teammates and kept the football.

"He's been pretty solid for us all the way through. I think that's one of the biggest things about Ben: consistency," Belichick said. "Training camp, regular season, preseason, all the way through, I think he's been really consistent."

It wasn't a perfect afternoon for the Patriots, though. Their streak of seven consecutive games and 435 straight offensive plays without a turnover was snapped in the first quarter, when Danny Woodhead fumbled at his own 34. Woodhead left the game with a head injury and didn't return, which put a slight damper on the day.

However, the dead-fish Dolphins couldn't convert the rare Patriots giveaway, as Carpenter pushed the aforementioned 40-yard field goal attempt wide left. And the Patriots still set an NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season (10), breaking the previous mark of 12, which was established by the Kansas City Chiefs in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

Another remarkable accomplishment in a season defined by them so far.

Now the Patriots sit, watch, and wait to find out who their next victim, err, opponent will be in the playoffs.

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