Heading into the day, the odds of a 1st round bye looked pretty bleak for the Patriots. Fortunately, they got some help from the Indianapolis Colts, who defeated the Houston Texans early in the afternoon. And with a 28-0 shutout victory over their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots closed the regular season on a high note, and clinched the #2 seed and a first round bye in the playoffs.
The win was a pretty complete victory from start to finish - something the team needed heading into the postseason after back-to-back lackluster performances against the 49ers and Jaguars.
On offense, the story of the day had to be the protection of quarterback Tom Brady. Brady has been hit a lot over the past few weeks, and facing an excellent pass rush from the Dolphins that included Pro Bowl end/linebacker Cameron Wake, it could have been problematic. Fortunately, the Patriots' line of Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Sebastian not only held up, but had arguably their best performance of the season. There's also no doubt that having Rob Gronkowski back, to place on Wake's side, also helped.
Other notes from offense:
- Great downfield blocking by Deion Branch on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. That's where his value is to this team. However, it was curious to see him playing over Brandon Lloyd for the majority of the game. Have to wonder if that was tied to Lloyd's health. He's been listed as questionable for a good chunk of the season with a thigh injury.
- Tough, hard-nosed day on the ground from Stevan Ridley. He broke a lot of tackles, ran with decisiveness, and finished the season on a high note. Ridley had 74 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. That's the type of running the Patriots will need from him in the playoffs.
- Wes Welker continues to own his former team. Welker reeled in eight catches for 94 yards and a first half touchdown. He also had several key third down conversions throughout the night, as well as in the fourth quarter.
Defensively, the score says just about everything. The Patriots played a full 60 minutes against the Dolphins, and had arguably their most complete defensive performance of the year. My notes on that side of the ball:
- Run defense was really improved. Have to look at Brandon Spikes as the catalyst there -- he made his return after missing last week's game against the Jaguars, and the end of the team's week 15 match-up against the 49ers. On the night, Dolphins' running backs finished with 39 yards on 13 carries. 18 of those yards came in garbage time on the game's final play.
- Break-out game for rookie free agent defensive lineman Justin Francis - who picked up three sacks and could end up getting credited for another half-sack. Francis led a strong Patriots pass rush, and could become a pivotal piece of the Patriots' defensive line rotation in the postseason. It appears that he's passed both Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott on the depth chart.
- Strong play from the defensive backfield. Kyle Arrington might have had his best game of the year. Derrick Martin worked in as the nickel back, and was excellent as a blitzer. The back-end of Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory also held up very well. Chung was in on several break-ups, and Gregory had a nice first quarter interception.
On the injury front, the Patriots may have received a blow to their pass rush, as defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich went down with a hip injury late in the first half. That will be a situation to monitor. But hopefully, with the week off, Ninkovich will be able to return for the Divisional playoffs.