BOSTON (CBS) – Most sane fans in this region won’t be flocking to sporting goods stores today to scoop up all of the “Division Champions” gear following the Patriots’ AFC East-clinching victory on Sunday afternoon against the Dolphins, and with good reason. Around here, success is celebrated in February, not early December, and the hope is for much more than a division title.
Perhaps, though, the Patriots’ winning their division for the fourth straight year and 10th time in 13 seasons under Bill Belichick should be savored a little bit more.
That doesn’t mean New England fans need to lessen their expectations, but it can be easy at times to forget just how much of a struggle it used to be to win the AFC East. Back in 2001, it took a come-from-behind, one-point victory over the Jets in Week 12 and a narrow 20-13 win over Miami in Week 15 (a game you might remember for the 23-yard completion from Kevin Faulk to Tom Brady) to secure that division title. That AFC East title was the Patriots’ first since they were back-to-back champs in ’96 and ’97, but before that, there was a 10-year gap between division championships.
Winning consecutive division titles is hard enough, too, as evidenced by just one of the eight division champs from 2010 repeating as champs in 2011. That team, of course, was New England.
With Sunday’s win, Brady became the first quarterback to ever win 10 division titles, and the Patriots guaranteed themselves at least one home playoff game this January.
It’s not winning the Super Bowl, but it is the work of a franchise that is on a run of near-dominance for more than a decade, and it’s OK to take a few moments this week to really appreciate it.
Now, let’s get into all the other leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ 23-16 win over the Dolphins.
–Everybody seems far too concerned about the Patriots’ playoff standings right now. Sure, it’s good that technically they’re in the No. 2 spot, which would give them a bye if the season ended today, but technically, there are still four weeks of football left, where technically anything can technically happen. So technically, you shouldn’t waste your time or lose any sleep about the playoff standings through Week 13. There’s 25 percent of a football season left to play.
–It was a hat-and-T-shirt game for the Pats, so Belichick didn’t mess around at all with his game attire. Zipper down, chest popping … hello, ladies.
–Remember two years ago, when BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ pursuit of a 1,000-yard season was covered with the fervor and intensity of a presidential election? It was kind of surprising, then, that Ridley eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark Sunday without so much as a mention from the broadcast crew. Ho-hum, just a second-year back topping 1,000 yards with four games left in the season.
Ridley’s averaging 84 yards per game, so if he rushes for 84 yards the next four games, he’ll finish the season with 1,346 yards. That would place him fourth all-time in franchise history, behind only Corey Dillon (1,635 in ’04), Curtis Martin (1,487 in ’95) and Jim Nance (1,458 in ’66). Martin is a Hall of Famer, Nance is a Patriots Hall of Famer and Dillon ranks 17th on the all-time yards list. Not bad company for Mr. Ridley in his second year.
–When Aaron Hernandez dropped two first-quarter passes from Brady, I just figured he’s not used to catching passes in Florida from a quarterback who can actually throw a spiral.
–A talk-radio topic this week will surely be Stephen Gostkowksi, but please, save it this week. Missing a 49-yard field goal on wet grass with some wind gusts blowing is not cause for concern. Gostkowski is at 80 percent on field goals for the season. He’s had some better years, but his career percentage is 83.8 percent. If he goes 7-for-8 to finish out the season, he’ll be right at that career average, and if he doesn’t, he’ll be just a few percentage points below it. You’re best not to worry too much about the kicker.
–The biggest misconception from non-football fans about linemen is that they’re just a bunch of fat guys. There’s no better illustration of how great an athlete a lineman can be than Vince Wilfork. We don’t know exactly how much the man weighs, but it’s a lot. Yet if you watched the swim move he put on Richie Incognito to blow through the line and disrupt a Ryan Tannehill throw, you watched something that very few men on earth have the athleticism to do.
–Also, when you watched Vince Wilfork lean over and pick up a loose football on the ground, you watched something that Miami punter Brandon Fields lacked the athleticism to do.
–On the topic of punters, can we all say a prayer for Zoltan Mesko’s man area? Ouch.
–Ron Winter has been a referee for 14 or so years now, so you would think he’d know which way to point when calling penalties. After Brady’s interception to Reshad Jones, though, Winter pointed toward the Patriots while calling a personal foul on Miami, said “Pardon me, New England,” then pointed at Miami and called a personal foul on New England. It led to a little bit of confusion.
–With the Patriots facing a second-and-goal from the Miami 7-yard line, the Dolphins sent eight men, leaving just three players to defend Julian Edelman, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. Brady got rid of the ball in about 0.5 seconds, Welker caught the screen, Lloyd did his job by blocking the corner, and Ryan Wendell and Sebastian Vollmer were out five yards beyond the line of scrimmage to block, allowing Welker to waltz in for the score.
Just a word to the wise: Maybe don’t blitz eight men against Brady and the Patriots. You’re basically just giving up points.
–I wrote over the weekend about how seeing Welker must cause nightmares for everyone within the Dolphins organization and all the team’s fans. He then went out and caught 12 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. But hey, at least the Dolphins saved $1 million and ended up with Samson Satele and Abraham Wright back in 2007!!
–Welker, by the way, is shorter than most other football players.
–Brandon Spikes is a little bit crazy. If you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that, but the third-year linebacker made sure everybody knew with his “tipped pass” dance followed up with his incompletion jig. Color analyst Dan Dierdorf said at one point, “Brandon Spikes is being pretty demonstrative about it,” which was probably the understatement of the season.
–I can’t be sure, but I have to assume that Nate Ebner committed a false start penalty just so he could get some face time on TV with that radical cowboy collar setup. That’s such an awesome look that you can’t even be mad about the five yards.
–I said last week that I wouldn’t post a bunch of screen shots of sad Jets fans, because they are real people who had their Thanksgivings ruined. But these Floridians won’t get any such protections. Come on, people. You all seem like weirdos.
–The Patriots are from an unbeatable team, but there are certain mistakes you just can’t make when you’re playing them if you hope to have any chance to win. Having your punter bobble a snap three times and get wrecked by three players is one of them. Committing pass interference on Shane Vereen running a go route up the sideline is another. Running directly through the punter is one more. Brian Hartline taking “false start” to a whole new level is yet another. These are the mistakes that differentiate seven-point wins from seven-point losses.
–The Patriots allowed four sacks, which is not good, but considering the O-line lost Dan Connolly early and still worked with great effectiveness with Nick McDonald filling in, it was still a win for Dante Scarnecchia and Co. The four sacks will be in focus this week, but so will the 16-play, 7:18 fourth-quarter drive that ended in a field goal and sealed the victory. That doesn’t happen without an offensive line dominating the line of scrimmage, and the fact that the backups have that kind of stamina in the fourth quarter on a hot day in Miami speaks to the job Scarnecchia does.
–There are little things in a football game that can cause immediate consequences. One such instance was Reggie Bush early in the fourth quarter. The running back ran left and stepped out of bounds about a yard behind the line of scrimmage. He could have gained a yard or two if he had been willing to lower his shoulder and try to drive through Alfonzo Dennard, but he instead avoided contact and slipped out the sideline. On the very next play, Tannehill was flushed out of the pocket and scrambled in an attempt to pick up the first down, completely laying out and getting drilled by Kyle Arrington as the QB tried to extend the football.
So in short, you’ve got your running back tiptoeing his way out of bounds, and your top-10 draft pick/future franchise quarterback sacrificing his body trying to gain an extra inch or two. That’s just so terribly wrong, and it’s why football coaches are all driven to insanity.
–I mentioned earlier that there’s a lot of football left before the playoffs begin, and there certainly is, but there’s also plenty of reason for optimism in New England. Sunday’s win improved Belichick to to 44-7 as the head coach of the Patriots in the month of December, the best such record in NFL history. They’ve won 12 straight December games, which is ridiculous and stretches back to mid-December in 2009.
That record is going to be challenged in the next two weeks with Houston and San Francisco making visits to Gillette Stadium, but if there’s any team suited to handle such a challenge, it’s this one.
“This is when the best teams really start to separate themselves,” Brady said after the win Sunday. “Your depth is challenged, your mental toughness is challenged, fighting through the bumps and bruises of a long season is a challenge and getting contributions from a lot of people is a challenge. That’s what you need this time of year. You have to continue to get better and better and better, and string games together and string practices together so when you need it the most you have it in the bank.”
The Patriots are 9-3, but we’ll see what they really have in the bank starting next Monday. Until then, the Patriots are division champs, lead the league by a wide margin in point differential and they’re a couple of scores away from having the best record in the league. They’ll have the chance to prove themselves as true contenders over the next couple of weeks, but for now, it’s OK to simply enjoy the fact that the Patriots are where they are, atop their division for the 10th time since 2001.
Just don’t buy division championship T-shirts. That’s a sign of weakness and is an activity only for fans of teams like the Dolphins or Titans when they somehow fall into a division championship.
Screen shots courtesy of NFL.com/GameRewind.