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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots make most of their golden opportunity
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, right, scores a touchdown in front of Miami Dolphins Olivier Vernon, left, and Chris Clemons, center, during the first half of their NFL football game in Foxborough Sunday. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - As they watched Deji Karim cover 101 yards with a kickoff return that quickly turned a two-point deficit into a five-point lead for his Colts, there was an audible response from the hardy souls braving the bitter cold of Gillette Stadium more than an hour before Sunday's kickoff.
As Vontae Davis intercepted Matt Schaub's throw to the end zone, and thwarted a threatening Houston drive, the growing crowd was even louder. And when T.Y. Hilton took an Andrew Luck pass 70 yards to paydirt, the filling seats erupted in a relative roar.
Those Patriots fans saw the opportunity unfolding. As they warmed up to face the Dolphins, the Patriots players did, too.
And because the Pats subsequently seized it, their home stadium will be silent next weekend.
Once Indianapolis used big plays from Karim, Smith and Hilton to beat Houston, New England took the field knowing that in order to bypass the first round of the AFC playoffs all they had to do was beat Miami - and after a pair of shaky starts over the previous couple of weeks, a prepared Patriots club took to that task early.
Scoring touchdowns on three of five first-half possessions, the Patriots opened up a 21-point lead that stood until it was padded in the final period, eventually coming away with a 28-0 win and the conference's No. 2 seed. With that they won't play again until the weekend of Jan. 12-13, and won't need to face the white-hot (and top-seeded) Broncos until at least the AFC championship game.
"We had to go out and beat Miami. That was what our main focus was all week, and even today," said safety Steve Gregory. "We did know - we did know the win guaranteed us a bye - so maybe for certain guys it did a little something extra, but we were just out here ready to play against Miami and go win a football game regardless of who won or what the situation was."
With the situation the way it is, the Patriots' next opponent will be either the Texans, Ravens or Colts - two teams they beat badly and a third they led by two scores in the middle of the fourth quarter - but more importantly it gives them two weeks to get ready.
Two weeks to self-scout. Two weeks to study film of familiar foes. Two weeks to get Rob Gronkowski nearer to health (after he scored in his return Sunday, but looked reluctant to use the left arm he broke last month). Two weeks to get Rob Ninkovich treated after the defensive end left the Dolphins game with a hip injury.
Two weeks to continue the healing of starting corners Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard, neither of whom played Sunday. And two weeks to rest the generally achy bodies of guys like Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Spikes and Aaron Hernandez in advance of the season's most meaningful and intense action.
If they had only one week, and were forced to get ready for the physically tough and largely unfamiliar Bengals - as would've been the case if Houston had beaten Indy - the road to the Super Bowl would've been exponentially more difficult, not only immediately, but also for the fact the path could've required them to make stops in both Houston and Denver.
And the Patriots played as though they understood all that. After staggering through the first quarter the last couple of weeks, they moved the ball well on each of their first five drives, they were sharp in their execution, and they were aggressive in both their play and their play-calling.
They opened the scoring with a 9-yard strike from Tom Brady to Wes Welker, then eschewed a chip-shot field goal for a Stevan Ridley 1-yard plunge on fourth-and-goal to go up 14-0 when they got the ball again.
Through eight series they were outgaining the Dolphins 205-86, and after Ridley barreled in from 2 yards out on the next possession they took to intermission a 21-0. It stayed that way until Gronkowski's 23-yard scoring catch from Brady - who in the course of his 48th straight game with a TD toss moved past former teammates Drew Bledsoe for ninth in all-time passing yards, as well as Vinny Testaverde for eighth in all-time completions - but Houston could've begun game-planning for Cincinnati even before halftime.
"We had a good week of practice. They were obviously ready to go today," Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said. "Hopefully this will be a good game that we can step off from and keep working to improve and get better in our next outing."
Belichick had much to be encouraged about defensively, as well, with his team totaling a season-high seven sacks - including three from rookie Justin Francis.
Miami's Reggie Bush arrived needing 40 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, but finished with 26, and Gregory's interception made the Patriots the first team since the 2010 Falcons to force a turnover in every game for a full season.
They later got an unforced turnover, too, when the Dolphins fumbled a handoff near the New England goal line, and that play plus a missed field goal helped the Pats to notch their first shutout since 2009 - and according to defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick, "When you can lay a goose egg on anybody, that's something to build on."
Now, though, the building is over. It's time to find out what their work has wrought, and in that respect history suggests the Patriots are in a good position. In the Brady-Belichick era, they've made it to the Super Bowl five of the six times they've enjoyed a bye; on the contrary, in that span they've never won the conference when forced to play a wild-card contest.
So don't be surprised if those same hardy fans are again making noise in New Orleans come early February.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.