The Patriots are AFC East champs once more following their 41-13 blowout win over the forever one-step-behind Miami Dolphins on Sunday. Tom Brady overcame a slow first half to pass for 287 yards and two touchdowns, the defense held the Dolphins to 106 total yards in the second half and Jamie Collins blocked a first quarter field goal that was run back for a TD by Kyle Arrington, setting the tone for another December win at Gillette Stadium. Here's some takeaways from the Pats' 11th win of the year.
1. Halftime adjustments make all the difference -- Going into the half, the Pats led by one point and had just been pantsed from a situational standpoint in the final minute of the second quarter. It was mind-boggling to watch in real time as Joe Philbin stomped on Bill Belichick in situational football.
Then the Pats came out to start the third quarter and ended the game in just over 10 minutes. They inserted Jonas Gray to jump start the running game and the play action attack, got Rob Gronkowski involved (zero first half catches) and even got a 17-yard run from Brady on a big third down to set up a LeGarrette Blount TD burst, the first of their four scores in the quarter. And on defense, they allowed the Dolphins, who moved the ball freely in the first half, to run seven plays with no first downs and an interception on their first three possessions of the half. With 4:30 left in the third quarter, the Pats led by 25 points. Now those are some halftime adjustments.
2. Returning players pay dividends -- Chandler Jones played for the first time since Week 7 against the Jets and showed up big with 1.5 sacks (one that forced a fumble), two hurries, two hits on Dolphins' QB Ryan Tannehill and seven tackles. Dont'a Hightower was also back after missing last week's game in San Diego and made multiple big stops, including one tremendous wrangle of running back Lamar Miller for a five-yard loss.
But what was most interesting -- and productive -- was the return of Gray, who was unshackled to start the second half and ignited the Pats' mud ridden offense with 62 yards on just 11 rushing attempts. Gray's been in the dog house since his oversleeping adventure a few weeks ago, but with the attack in neutral throughout the first half, he finally got another chance, allowing for Brady to use more play action and open up the entire offense. Gray brings a different dimension to the running game than Blount thanks to his ability to hit the line of scrimmage faster and it really showed in this game. Here's hoping that he's used this much going forward. Someone make sure he has plenty of iPhone chargers.
3. Special Teams makes a difference again -- Another week, another blocked kick, this one the third field goal block of the season, tying a franchise record. Jamie Collins jumped through the sky to swat a first quarter attempt straight into the ground and Kyle Arrington picked up the perfect hop and took it to the house.
The play set the tone for the game as it gave the Pats a cushion to absorb the offense's slow first half and still hit the locker room with a lead despite being outplayed. It seems like every time the Pats win, something happens in this phase of the game that directly contributes to the end result ans Sunday was no different. Also, big time props to kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who became the Patriots' all-time leader in scoring with his third quarter field goal, passing Adam Vinatieri. Gostkowski now has 1,163 career points. Not too shabby.
4. Defense bends a little bit, then breaks Dolphins -- Tannehill was making every throw in the first half and was helped immensely by a ridiculous, one-handed touchdown catch by Mike Wallace at the tail end of the second quarter. But even when the Dolphins were moving the ball and confusing the Pats' defenders, New England still managed to hold its ground (and benefited from a couple of key mistakes) before dominating in the second half. Duron Harmon's big interception and return early in the second quarter set up the Pats' first offensive touchdown and ended a promising looking drive. And starting in the third quarter, when the magical adjustments were put into effect, the Dolphins were shut down completely until the game was out of reach. Hat tips go to Jones, Hightower, Vince Wilfork, Jamie Collins, Rob Ninkovich, Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga and of course, Darrelle Revis, all of whom were noticeable throughout.
5. Hat and t-shirt games never get old -- It wasn't pretty. The offensive line struggled at times again and Brady was clearly unnerved in the first half. But in the end, the Pats emerged with yet another AFC East title, their 12th under Belichick, and trip to the playoffs. It's pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point but we should still take a second to recognize that it's tough to win games in the NFL, especially as frequently and consistently as the Patriots do it. They still hold the key to the AFC No. 1 seed and homefield throughout the playoffs in their hands and this win was the next step toward securing that advantage. It can't ever get old to watch, for the team or the fans.
Photo: (L-R) Akeem Ayers, Zach Moore and Darius Fleming display their AFC East championship gear. pic.twitter.com/Si6orerm3u— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 14, 2014