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In victory, Patriots shut a few traps

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 3, 2012 10:52 AM

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That wasn't a trap game. No. It was a shove-it-down-their-trap game.

Should we consider, a few years from now, the Patriots' 23-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins Sunday -- a win that secured the franchise's ninth AFC East crown in 10 years -- chances are it won't be recalled as much more than another W on the schedule, one with a relatively close score.

There are so many highlights and legendary victories already in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick Era -- and logically, quite a few still ahead -- that semi-dramatic division-clinching victories are often relegated to the footnotes.

It's an extraordinarily fortunate problem to have as a fan. But even those among us who too often ignore context and perspective for hysterics and concerns, who search for traps around all corners and find little joy in the journey, must recognize that value and meaning in Sunday's victory.

Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. But Tom Brady left no doubt about where he stood.

"That wasn't ugly, that was a great win," said Brady, who completed 24 of 40 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown. "They made it tough on us, there's no question about it. We fought hard, we made some terrific plays when we had to. They played really well; every single play was a challenge. We made some plays when we needed to. So it was a great win."

It was a great win, a meaningful win, and not just because it was punctuated with the ol' postgame hat and t-shirt of a division champion. It's meaningful because it's one that very well may serve as a harbinger for how they will win in January and beyond when or if Brady isn't at his sharpest on a given day.

Forget that it was just the Dolphins, who entered at 5-6 under new coach Joe Philbin and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Patriots went into a place that is chronically difficult on opponents (Brady has lost in Miami five times as a starter), against a flawed but upstart Dolphins team itching to make its season by taking a pelt from the Patriots, and behind an offensive line that had been forced to plug backups Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald in at guard, proceeded to hammer out a 16-play, 77-yard fourth-quarter drive in which they ran the ball down the throats of the Dolphins' well-regarded run defense. Stephen Gostkowski punctuated the drive, which took 7 minutes and 16 seconds off the clock, with a 20-yard field goal that made it a two-score game with 1:10 remaining.

That's how you do it. That's how you close a victory emphatically, something they have struggled to do even in certain games they ultimately won. And they did it by essentially handing the ball to Stevan Ridley and telling him, "Here you go, kid. Carry us to the end."

Ridley, the second-year back who went over 1,000 yards for the season Sunday, picked up 46 of his hard-fought 71 yards on that drive. The Dolphins knew what was coming and could do nothing to stop it, which speaks not only of the Patriots' ability to run the ball when they need to, but suggests the relentless Ridley is capable of being the big-game back that Corey Dillon was in 2004 and Antowain Smith was at times in 2001 and '03. I keep trying to come up with a comparison for Ridley in terms of style and skill, but I always end up back at the same place: He's exactly what everyone wanted Laurence Maroney to be.

With the running game picking up the slack Sunday and the opportunistic defense finding its identity, Patriots fans should be encouraged and emboldened as they face a fascinating two-week stretch in which they play the Texans and Niners, the top team in each conference according to the standings.

So much -- everything, really -- is yet to be determined regarding seeding and byes. But with the Texans immediately ahead and Baltimore falling to Pittsburgh Sunday night to essentially cause three-way tie between the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens for the No. 2 seed, the Patriots have a huge say in whether they secure a bye.

The magnitude of what's ahead the next two weeks is apparent even to the habitual yowlers, the sports-radio jargon-spewers, and the incurably concerned. No one is calling these trap games. But after what the Patriots did to the Dolphins, it might be wise to remember that one as a shut-your-trap game.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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