Beating the Bills? Check. Winning the AFC East for the eighth time in the last ten years? Check. Locking up a first-round bye? Check. Securing home-field advantage through the playoffs? Check. What’s left to play for? Nothing. The Patriots have achieved every goal they’ve set, and they did it a week early. Their final game of the season- a home game against the 7-8 Miami Dolphins- will be as meaningless as winning a baseball game in April (or May… or June… or July, for that matter). Win or lose, they’ll finish as the best team in the AFC, and arguably the best team in the NFL.
Facing the quick defense of the Dolphins, Bill Belichick will likely rest his starters , several of whom (including Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez) have been plagued by minor injuries in the last few weeks. Belichick has not forgotten losing Wes Welker in the final regular-season game last year, and he won’t make the same mistake two years in a row. Expect to see Tom Brady and the gang for a half, then it’s the Brian Hoyer show. Expect to see a lot of Julian Edelman (maybe even a half-back option play), a lot more Brandon Tate, and dashes of Matt Slater and Taylor Price. Fred Taylor will be your running back. On defense, expect a heavy dose of Landon Cohen and Darryl Richard on the line, Tracy White at linebacker, and Tony Carter and Bret Lockett in the secondary. I’ve included Wikipedia links to each player’s bio, because that will probably tell you a lot more about these scrubs than ESPN will. If playing these nobodies means a loss, too bad. Belichick is more than happy to put his 27 consecutive home wins on the line if it means a healthier squad in three weeks.
And who knows? The Dolphins offense is so bad (29th in the NFL in points per game) that the Patriots starters may do enough in one half to beat them. Miami will also have to beat the Patriots in Foxborough, where they usually freeze in the wind and snow. Since 2001, the Dolphins have only beaten Brady in Foxborough once, and that was a give-away Week 17 game in 2005 in which Brady barely played. Ticket-holders should not be shy about flooding Gillette Stadium on January 2. Show your support for a team that has surpassed all expectations, then sit back and enjoy what might be a competitively terrible football game.
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There’s no point in grading the Patriots for their victory over the Bills, because the results make the grades self-evident. The offense put up 34 points, the defense only allowed three (on the opening drive, no less). Brady threw for three touchdowns and no picks (breaking the record for consecutive passing attempts without an interception in the process), and the running backs racked up a touchdown and 235 combined all-purpose yards. The defense forced six turnovers, Shayne Graham made both field goals and all four extra points, and Sergio Brown recovered a muffed punt. Belichick and the coaches figured out how to stop the Bills running game after one series (64 rushing yards on the first Buffalo drive, 61 rushing yards for the rest of the game, including 14 on scrambles by Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick), and the resulting shift to the passing game caused all those turnovers. Given all of this, how can any portion of the team get anything less than top marks?
The best way to describe the Patriots’ victory Sunday is “professional.” Every week since the “Jets” massacre, people have been wondering if the Patriots would have a letdown in intensity and focus, as each opponent has gotten increasingly easier (Bears, Rodgers-less Packers, Bills). But each time the Patriots have taken care of business. With the Bills playing strong football coming into Sunday’s game (winners of four of their last six games), this one looked like a typical “trap game.” But what we got was the opposite. Belichick game-planned well, coming up with a run-based attack (they ran the ball 60 percent of the time for the most rushing yards in over two years) that exploited the biggest weakness of the Bills.
Defensively, Belichick made the necessary adjustments after the opening drive, and the Buffalo offense completely fell apart. Each of Buffalo’s seven turnovers either killed a scoring opportunity or gave the Patriots a shortened field to cover (average start was the New England 45-yard line). Simply put, the team executed on a level that Buffalo could not compete with. Buffalo had no answer to the Patriots after their first offensive drive. The Patriots know that the Bills are the NFL’s equivalent of a AAA baseball team. Instead of playing down to their opponent, they maintained a professional level of play. When they played offense, they scored. When they played defense, they prevented scores. It wasn’t necessarily pretty or exciting. It was simple, workman-like, economic. Go in, get it done, get out. The Bills couldn’t hang with the Patriots, and the lead just went up periodically.
The Patriots knew all week what they would be playing for, what goals could be achieved, and they went out and got it. Their last remaining goal is the Super Bowl. If they can execute as efficiently on February 6 as they did on December 26, they can check that one off, too.