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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Stout defense wins the day - and the division
New England Patriots defensive end Trevor Scott (99) celebrates a fumble recover against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter at Sun Life Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 23-16. (Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE)
AS Tom Brady stepped up to the podium, wearing a white-shirt, black-tie combination with a price tag that would probably explain that the clothes aren't quite as plain as they might've looked, the quarterback also wore a big smile.
In the game just finished, Brady had thrown his first interception in more than 200 attempts, his offense had managed fewer yards than in any other game this season (321), and his team had scored 14 fewer points than its season average. But he wasn't buying the notion that Sunday's 23-16 win over the Dolphins was ugly.
"That wasn't ugly. That was a great win," Brady said, the persisting smile voicing his sincerity. "They made it tough on us, there's no question about it, but I thought we fought hard, we made some critical plays when we need to. We knew it was going to be tough, and it was. They played well. Every single play was a challenge - and we made some plays when we needed to.
"It was a great win."
After New England scored 190 points over its four previous games, and romped its way to three routs therein, perhaps the reporter who posed that question to Brady had forgotten that quality wins can take all sorts of shapes. But in some ways, and with the bigger picture in view, Sunday's triumph might've been as good as any the Pats have had during what's now a six-game winning streak.
There's never been a doubt that the Patriots can win with their explosive offense. History shows that the Patriots are practically unbeatable when they're able force their foes into multiple turnovers. Though there was some question about whether New England was sturdy enough to win with some good, old-fashioned, make-a-stop, shut-it-down defense.
But in clinching their 10th AFC East championship in 12 years, the Patriots hope they provided the answer.
They forced just a single turnover on Sunday afternoon, and they weren't operating with the mistake-allowing safety net that Brady's bunch typically affords, so in order to succeed at Miami in December for the first time under Bill Belichick, New England needed to win in the vintage style of his gilded era's glory days. And that's just what they did.
They limited Reggie Bush and the Miami passing game to just 3.7 yards per carry. They held Ryan Tannehill to 186 yards passing, with a 44.8 percent completion percentage. They notched three sacks - two from third-string defensive end Trevor Scott, the third from a blitzing Jerod Mayo.
They limited the Dolphins to 277 yards. In the first 58 minutes, they allowed only two gains of more than 17 yards. They thwarted 10 of 13 third-down conversion attempts. And thus they kept Miami to only 15 third downs.
There wasn't a bunch of big hits, or timely takeaways, or player-of-the-week type performances. In fact, no Patriot had more than six tackles. But that's the point. A defense that's consistently steady, and occasionally spectacular, is dangerous in today's football.
And that's just what the Patriots were Sunday at SunLife Stadium.
"When the offense struggles it's a chance for us to show how special we are on the defense," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. "We went out there, we didn't give up a lot of points today. We had (four) three-and-outs. We made some plays.
"The offense is OK to have a bad game here or there. They've done so much for us, and one thing we do, or we want to do around here, is we always want to play as a team."
The offense did enough to let Wes Welker (12 catches) surpass 1,000 yards receiving for the season, and to help Stevan Ridley hit the same mark as a rusher. But as Belichick said, "it's not about stats, it's about wins" - so while the Patriots didn't reach the end zone over the final 39 minutes of play, and gained a grand total of 23 yards in the 21:20 that followed Welker's second-quarter touchdown, the defense made sure that those numbers didn't prohibit the Patriots from winning.
Over that same span, the Dolphins were allowed to gain only 126 yards - 90 of which came on a single series that was the exception in a stretch that included five punts and a fumble. That drive enabled Miami to narrow New England's advantage to 17-10, though after a couple of weeks of no-contest blowouts, the defense never let it get closer than that, and only allowed a pair of Dan Carpenter field goals the rest of the way.
Plainly and simply, they did their job. And when it needed to, Brady's offense reciprocated. Taking over with 8:28 remaining in regulation, and nursing a touchdown lead, the Patriots put together a drive that ate all but 70 seconds of the clock before resulting in a field goal.
That clinched the game, clinched a 12th straight winning season, clinched the division. It also improved the Pats to 20-0 in the second half of the season since 2010 - and further advanced the growing notion that they're as complete a club as they've been in some time.
"This is when the best teams really start separating themselves," said Brady, whose 10th division title moved him one ahead of Joe Montana for the most by any quarterback in history. "Your depth is challenged. Your mental toughness is challenged. Fighting through the bumps and bruises of a long season is a challenge. Getting contributions from a lot of people is a challenge. That's what you need this time of year."
"It's not supposed to be easy - and it wasn't today."
It sure wasn't. Although it wasn't ugly, either.
In fact, Brady might even say that his new hat and T-shirt - earned for winning the East - are rather fashionable.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.