MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Patriots frequently have had their issues when facing the Dolphins in South Florida, and Sunday was no different.
But New England was able to sew up its fourth straight AFC East title and 10th of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era with a 23-16 win.
On a day when rushing yards were hard to come by against a Dolphins defense ranked seventh in the league in that category, and Brady not connecting on as many passes as usual for much of the game, New England played another total team game, which enabled the Patriots to collect their championship hats and T-shirts.
The Patriots put the game away with a 16-play, 77 yard drive that lasted 7 minutes 18 seconds and ended with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to put them ahead by two scores, 23-13, and left Miami with just 70 seconds left in the game.
“That was probably our best drive of the game,’’ Belichick said. “We needed it. We got good contributions from everybody.’’
On that drive, Brady was 3 for 3, completing passes to Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, and Brandon Lloyd (his only reception of the game), but Stevan Ridley played a bigger role. The second-year back got the ball 10 times for 46 yards, picking up three first downs along the way.
“It was good execution, I thought we did a good job making some critical plays when we needed to,’’ Brady said. “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.’’
“They did some good things,’’ first-year Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of his defense. “But when the game was on the line they [the Patriots] were able to move the ball and make it a two-possession game.’’
Despite the AFC East title, the mood in the New England locker room was subdued. Belichick gave the reminder that there is still a quarter of the season to go, and some players noted this is just the first check mark on the list of goals for this season.
“We’ll enjoy this one today, but the road from here is daunting,’’ special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “There’s a lot to be concerned with as far as seeding. It’s a good step but it’s not the last step.’’
The Patriots’ next two games are against the Texans and 49ers. Both are at home, but those teams possess offenses and defenses that rank near the top of the league, and are better top to bottom than the ones New England has faced during its six-game win streak.
After scoring 17 first-half points, New England had only 6 in the second half on two fourth-quarter field goals. But the Patriots gave up only 6 points in the second half.
Vince Wilfork likes seeing the defense play a big role.
“Especially when the offense struggles, it’s a chance for us to showcase how special we are on the defensive end,’’ Wilfork said. “We didn’t give up a lot of points today, had some three-and-outs, made some plays. Offense is OK to have a bad game here and there. They’ve done so much for us and one thing we want to do around here is we always want to play as a team.’’
It was the first December win for the Patriots in Miami since Brady has been the starting QB.
The Dolphins were a bit of a mess in the opening two quarters, with several key mistakes that began on their first possession.
Miami got the ball to start the game and went three-and-out. A low snap from John Denney to punter Brandon Fields led to Fields trying to run with the ball, but Slater got to him quickly, allowing the Patriots to start their first drive just 12 yards from the end zone.
Although a Donald Thomas holding call pushed the offense back to the 22, Brady completed a 12-yard pass to Welker as Brady was falling down, then an 8-yarder to Hernandez for the first down. Ridley got the ball for the 2-yard touchdown.
It was the fifth straight game that Ridley has recorded a rushing touchdown.
On the Patriots’ third possession, Brady threw just his fourth interception of the year when Reshad Jones picked off a sideline pass intended for Hernandez; it was a high degree of difficulty play pulled off by Jones.
The safety sprinted toward the end zone for what first appeared to be a tying pick-6. But a penalty for low blocks on both teams wiped the TD off the board, although Miami retained possession.
Despite starting at the New England 34, the Dolphins got no farther than the 26 and got their first points on a 44-yard Dan Carpenter field goal.
Another costly Miami mistake led to the Patriots’ second touchdown.
After not picking up a first down, New England’s Zoltan Mesko lined up for his first punt of the game. But Jimmy Wilson committed a blatant roughing-the-kicker penalty, drilling Mesko in the groin.
Given 15 yards and a fresh set of downs, Brady and Welker worked their connection, with the receiver making four catches for 36 yards after the penalty, including the 7-yard touchdown.
“Oh man, I’m sick about that,’’ Wilson said. “I got a late jump. I shouldn’t have left my feet.’’
The defense got its 33d takeaway of the season 90 seconds later when Trevor Scott, who saw a lot of playing time thanks to Chandler Jones’s injury and Jermaine Cunningham’s suspension, forced the ball out of Ryan Tannehill’s grasp when he hit him from behind. Wilfork fell on the loose ball.
“For the opportunity Trevor got — a two-sack game speaks for itself,’’ Rob Ninkovich said. “It’s great — with some guys down, other guys have to step up.’’
Though they again started with a short field, the Patriots went nowhere; Gostkowski hit from 43 yards for a 17-3 lead.
The Dolphins got their only touchdown just before halftime, overcoming two early penalties that backed them up to the 5. Tannehill ran the ball in himself, though he was flipped off his feet by Alfonzo Dennard and absorbed a hit from Ninkovich.
Brady looked to Welker so often in the first half — he was targeted 13 times, as many as the other five targeted players total — that he had 10 catches by the break.
It gave him his 17th career game with 10 or more receptions, tying him with Jerry Rice for most all time.