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Patriots finish regular season with a flourish, blanking Dolphins, 28-0

FOXBORO — The Patriots took advantage of the opportunity presented to them by the stumbling Texans, crushing the Dolphins, 28-0, Sunday at Gillette Stadium [1]. Their win, combined with Houston’s loss to Indy, allowed them to shoot past the Texans and into the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff picture. As a result, New England won’t have to play next weekend, and will host a divisional playoff game the weekend of Jan. 12-13.

New England took a 21-0 halftime lead and never lost control, as the Patriots used a 9-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady [2] to Wes Welker [3] and a pair of touchdown runs from Stevan Ridley (one from one yard out and another from two yards out) to take command early. Meanwhile, Miami struggled offensively, and ran just five plays from scrimmage in New England territory over the first two quarters.

It was the same story in the second half, as the Patriots cruised to the win, improving to 12-4 for the season. Brady led the way for the New England offense, finishing 22-for-36 for 284 yards with two touchdowns. Ridley ended up with 20 carries for 74 yards and two touchdowns, and Welker had eight catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Rob Gronkowski [4] caught two passes for 42 yards and a touchdown in his first games back since breaking his forearm against the Colts. He played a total of 24 offensive snaps.

The Dolphins dropped to 7-9. Miami, which looked like it mentally checked out midway through the third quarter after Reggie Bush [5] fumbled just before the New England end zone, was led by Ryan Tannehill (20-for-35 for 235 yards with one interception) and Brian Hartline (five catches, 69 yards).


‘€¢ The Patriots were able to get consistent pressure on Tannehill throughout the afternoon, finishing with a season-high seven sacks while playing much of the game with an combination of different personnel up front. Rookie Justin Francis [6] had three sacks, while Trevor Scott [7], Vince Wilfork [8], Derrick Martin and Brandon Deaderick each had one sack on the day. With uncertainty surround the health of Rob Ninkovich [9], Francis has done a good job over the last few weeks making his case for more playing time.

‘€¢ The Patriots were able to put together a pair of impressive drives at the start and finish of the second quarter. The first drive of the second — which began at the end of the first — ended for the Patriots when Ridley snuck in underneath the pile from a yard out (on a fourth-down play) to make it 14-0 with 10:26 left in the quarter. It was a drive that took 7:28 — the second-longest of the season for the New England offense, and one that looked an awful lot like the one that took 7:18 and closed out the Dolphins back on Dec. 2. (The longest of the season was 7:39, on Thanksgiving against the Jets.) The Patriots put the capper on the first half with another impressive sequence. Brady engineered a 14-play, 69-yard drive for New England that took 5:24 and was finished off by Ridley (this time from two yards out) and was highlighted by a 14-yard pass play to Danny Woodhead [10] to make it 21-0 with a minute left in the second quarter.

‘€¢ The Patriots were able to get a good look at a cross-section of players who were questionable heading into the postseason, and leading that list was Gronkowski. The big tight end played for the first time since suffering an arm injury in the waning moments of a Nov. 18 win over Indy, and saw significant snaps. He appeared tentative at times, but played in all four quarters. He was at his best in the fourth when he caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Brady to put the Patriots up 28-0 with 9:20 left in the fourth quarter.


‘€¢ A second-quarter injury to linebacker Rob Ninkovich — he went down with a hip problem midway through the second and wasn’t seen on the sidelines for the rest of the afternoon — could be serious for the Patriots if it is a long-term problem. Ninkovich has proven himself to be one of New England’s most important defenders, and would be difficult to replace.

‘€¢ The Patriots missed out on a pair of marks. First, Ridley finished the season with 290 carries, 10 shy of the 300 mark. (He missed out on becoming the first New England running back to hit the 300-carry mark since Corey Dillon did it in 2004.) In addition, Welker finished the season with 118 catches on the year — he missed out on tying his own franchise record for catches in a season by five. (The mark is 123, which he set in 2009.)