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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Boring drive was exciting news
New England Patriots' defensive end Trevor Scott, left, chases Miami Dolphins' quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Miami Gardens Sunday. (REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity)
WATCHING from the sidelines as his teammates repeatedly, forcefully, willfully ran the ball right through the heart of the Dolphins' defense, Vince Wilfork became a bit more excited with each chunk of turf and time the Patriots swallowed.
Given the ball and a seven-point lead with about eight and a half minutes left in Sunday's game against at Miami, the attack's sole purpose had become transforming that opportunity into a division title - and that's exactly what they did, ramming their way down the field on a drive that used all but the final 70 seconds before producing a field goal that sealed what became a 23-16 triumph.
"When we started running the ball that was pretty exciting to see," Wilfork said. "I was kind of pumped up on the sideline."
In terms of excitement, that possession should logically rate pretty low compared with some of the explosive moments the Patriots have enjoyed so far this season. It took them 15 plays to gain 77 yards, and ultimately stalled in a goal-to-go situation. Certainly a team that's scored 51 touchdowns has had more sensational series.
But few of New England's drives have been as impressive as the one that had Wilfork worked up on Sunday. And if it turns into the start of a trend, even fewer have been as important.
To appreciate it, consider the context under which it began. To that point in the game, the Pats had thrown the ball on 37 of 60 offensive snaps, and that imbalance was justified by their inability to run the ball effectively. In 19 times they'd accumulated just 56 yards, an average of less than 3 per carry.
Feature back Stevan Ridley had been particularly unproductive, finishing the first half with four yards on four carries. Overall he'd gained two yards or less on five of his nine hauls leading into the win-securing drive, as to that juncture, the Patriots' running game looked very much like a unit that began the day missing left guard Logan Mankins and lost right guard Dan Connolly during the course of battle. And now it was being asked to execute a clock-draining drive against a Dolphins run defense that ranks fourth in football, having allowed its enemies just 3.7 yards per carry.
Yet that's exactly what they did. And did in about as steady and smashmouth a fashion as possible.
Three times Tom Brady slung a second-down pass to one of his receivers, but the rest of the drive was entirely on the ground. There was nothing fancy about the calls or the formations, and especially as the game progressed to the stage where Miami began spending its timeouts, the Dolphins knew exactly what the Patriots were going to do.
But New England kept doing it. And it kept working. They moved the ball so methodically that no play gained more than 11 yards, though they moved it so dominantly that it wasn't until 12 plays and more than four minutes had elapsed that the Pats faced a third down. Even then, it was merely third and 2. And Ridley got exactly enough to ensure that his team would hold the ball until after the two-minute warning.
"It was time to lock in and go ahead and move the ball on the ground," said Ridley, whose 54 yards on the drive brought him over 1,000 for the season. "Our offensive line, they battled hard. They worked all day and they just kept fighting. That's all you can ask of an offensive line is to just keep fighting until the very end. You see how football goes. The last drive it finally opened up for us and we found a way on a great run defense."
"It was good execution," Brady added. "I thought that we did a good job making some critical plays when we needed to. The running game was huge; I thought the running backs ran really hard, protected the ball and got some great blocking up front. It's what we needed at that time."
Had the Patriots had it when they needed it to protect fourth-quarter leads against Arizona, Baltimore or Seattle, they'd control their own destiny in the AFC. In fact, if they had it all three times, there's a strong possibility they'd still be undefeated.
But though the past is the past, and those results can't be changed, the way the Patriots put away Sunday's win bodes well for their future. From here on out, with Houston and San Francisco coming to Foxborough the next couple weeks and the playoffs looming soon thereafter, they're likely to find themselves in similar predicaments throughout the rest of the season.
It'll be important that they can keep themselves in advantageous situations by running the ball. Even more so, it'll be important that they can do it when everyone knows what's coming, and do it against good defenses like the Dolphins'. The AFC playoffs promise to be loaded with such challenges.
But if the Patriots can finish games like they did Sunday, more excitement may be ahead.
"Really what you're focused on is going out there and playing your best football when you need it the most - at the end," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday. "I thought our guys really stepped up and handled that challenge at that time."
With Pittsburgh's win over Baltimore, tiebreakers would currently award the Patriots the AFC's No. 2 seed based on an 8-1 conference record. But that doesn't mean they control their own destiny.
The Ravens and Broncos face off Dec. 16, which diminishes the chances of the current three-way tie existing at season's end. That said, Pats fans should become Peyton Manning fans that day; by virtue of head-to-head results, New England would win a tiebreaker with Denver, but can't win a two- or three-way tie with Baltimore if the Ravens beat the Broncos.
One other interesting playoff scenario to think about for New England: At 8-4, Indianapolis has a good chance to be the No. 5 seed while Pittsburgh has the inside track on being No. 6. If a bye is out of the question in the final week, would the Patriots lose on purpose in order to be seeded fourth, and face the Colts, especially if Ben Roethlisberger is back with the Steelers? Time will tell.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.