Patriots clinch AFC East with 23-16 victory over Dolphins

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Patriots clinch AFC East with 23-16 victory over Dolphins

The Patriots closed it all out -- the game, and the AFC East race -- in style on Sunday.

For nearly 3 12 quarters, they'd played as if their high-octane offense had been dipped in molasses. The inspired Dolphins limited New England to 20 points, the Pats' lowest output since Week 2, and the Patriots were clinging to a precarious 20-13 lead when they took possession on their own 20 with 8:28 to play.

Scoring summary and statistics

And then -- at last -- they put together the type of close-it-out drive that had been missing from their arsenal all season. They drained 7 minutes and 18 seconds off the clock as they moved 78 yards in 15 plays down to the Miami 2-yard line. When Stephen Gostkowski drilled a chip-shot 21-yard field goal with 1:10 left, they'd given themselves enough of a cushion to withstand a late Dan Carpenter field goal and walk away with a 23-16 victory, which enabled them to clinch their fourth consecutive AFC East title.

The Patriots have won the division 10 times in the last 12 years -- in the other two, they finished tied for first but lost the title on tie-breakers -- and 15 times in their history. The victory, their sixth straight, also raised their record to 9-3 and extended their streak of consecutive above-.500 seasons to 12, the third-longest in NFL history. (The 1970-85 Cowboys and the 1983-98 49ers each had 16 straight winning seasons.)

Early in the day, when Miami flubs helped the Patriots race out to a 17-3 lead, none of this seemed as if it would be in question with 8:28 to play. But Wes Welker (12 catches, 103 yards, 1 touchdown) could see danger clouds forming.

"There's a lot of times, we're kind of one-dimensional," Welker said of the Pats' offense, which ran the ball only 8 times (for 10 yards) in the first half. "Going empty backfield, which the Pats did extensively in the first two quarters, doing some of those things . . . we needed to be able to run the ball better and really work some play action . . . "

It came crashing down on them in the third quarter, which started with the Pats leading, 17-10. They went three-and-out on their first possession, five-and-out on their second, seven-and-out on their third and were losing the battle of field possession so decisively that Miami started one drive on the Pats' 49 with a chance to tie the game.

But the defense stepped up and helped the Pats preserve the lead . . . pleasing captain Vince Wilfork no end.

"You know what? It's good," he said when asked how pleased he was that the defense bailed out the offense. "Especially when the offense struggles, it's a chance for us to showcase how special we are on the defense. We went out there, we didn't give up a lot of points, we had some three-and-outs, we made some plays . . . "

When the offense missed a chance to ice things -- after getting a first-and-goal at the Miami 2 early in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady was sacked twice and the Pats had to settle for a 22-yard Gostkowski field goal and a 20-10 lead -- the defense made one of the big plays Wilfork talked about. The Dolphins had reached the Pats' 7, but a Jerod Mayo sack of Ryan Tannehill on third down short-circuited a Miami drive; the subsequent 33-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter kept New England ahead by a touchdown, 20-13.

And then came The Drive.

It started with a three-yard run by Stevan Ridley. It was followed by an eight-yard pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez, and then an eight-yard run by Ridley, a nine-yard run by Ridley, a five-yard run by Ridley, a six-yard pass from Brady to Welker, an 11-yard run by Ridley and a two-yard run by Ridley.

"I love to see my offense run the football because I know we have great running backs, we have great blockers," said Wilfork. "We face those guys all the time in practice. When we started running the ball, that was pretty exciting to see.

"I was kind of pumped up on the sideline with that."

By this point, the Pats had taken four minutes off the clock and reached the Dolphins 30, and Miami started taking its time outs in an attempt to ensure it would get the ball back.

"It was good execution," said Brady (24-of-40, 238 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception). "I thought we did a good job making some critical plays when we needed to. Really, the run game was huge. I thought the running backs ran really hard, protected the ball, and we got some great blocking up front. It's what we needed at that time."

The drive didn't stall until the Pats reached the Dolphins 2, and even then it wasn't really a stall: To guarantee they got points and killed as much of the clock as they could, Brady ran a quarterback sneak to the middle of the field on a third-and-goal, setting up the Gostkowski field goal that made it a two-score game.

"That last drive was great to see," said Welker "The offensive line, the running backs, and everybody just working together to run that clock out and make sure we got that field goal at the end."

The Dolphins took advantage of the Pats' prevent defense to move the ball downfield and, with 39 seconds left, get the field goal they needed to get them within a touchdown. But Brandon Lloyd recovered the subsequent onside kick and the game was over.

Early on, it seemed like it would be over a lot quicker than that. The Pats started their first possession on the Miami 12 after the Dolphins messed up the snap on a punt, and Ridley ran it in from two yards out with just over three minutes elapsed for a 7-0 lead. Carpenter kicked a 44-yard field goal late in the first quarter to cut it to 7-3, but the Pats made it 14-3 on a seven-yard pass from Brady to Welker, and 17-3 on a 43-yard field goal by Gostkowski (after a recovered fumble).

Miami, however, closed the quarter with an 80-yard drive -- officially; in actuality, it was a 95-yard march as two penalties on the first two plays gave the Dolphins a first-and-25 from their own 5 -- that Tannehill capped with a two-yard TD scramble, making it 17-10. And what seemed like an easy victory morphed into a nail-biter.

That may have been one of the reasons Bill Belichick seemed more taciturn than expected afterwards. (He even made a "gotta coach better" allusion he usually saves for defeats.) "We've got a long way to go," he said.

Still, the ability to close out a game -- something they've struggled to do all season -- is a step forward. And at the right time, too.

"Belichick told us, the season starts now," Brady said with a smile. "We're 1-0 when we need to be."

Acciari, Heinen called back up to Bruins

Acciari, Heinen called back up to Bruins

BRIGHTON, Mass. – The Bruins made a few roster moves after a slogging 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche earlier this week, with an eye toward getting some competition going among the forward group, and perhaps spark a team struggling offensively.

Danton Heinen and Noel Acciari were brought up from Providence to skate with the big club on Saturday morning at Warrior Ice Arena and gritty Anton Blidh was returned to the P-Bruins after a solid stint as a fourth-line energy guy for the Black and Gold. 

Jimmy Hayes and Colin Miller were the late skaters off the ice following morning skate, so those will be the healthy scratches for the Bruins with both Acciari and Heinen in the lineup for the Black and Gold tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden.

Heinen has been tearing it up for the P-Bruins lately with four goals and seven points in his past five games with a plus-2 rating, including a couple of two-goal games for a Providence team that’s starting to heat up. 

Otherwise, things looked fairly similar for the Black and Gold, who didn’t make any changes to the struggling top power-play unit that was a disaster on Thursday night in the first period. It was Patrice Bergeron in the bumper role, Ryan Spooner on the half-wall, David Backes at the front of the net and David Krejci and Torey Krug manning the point positions. 

Here are the Bruins projected line combos and D-pairings based on the morning skate: 

 
Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak

Heinen-Krejci-Backes

Spooner-Nash-Czarnik

Schaller-Moore-Acciari/Hayes

 
Chara-Carlo

Krug-McQuaid

Morrow-K. Miller

C. Miller

Rask

 

Bruins power play looking for some upgrade answers

Bruins power play looking for some upgrade answers

BOSTON - It would appear things can’t continue the way they are for the Bruins' power play. 

After a disastrous first period helped dig them a hole in a 4-2 loss to the lowly Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night, there was some pretty serious soul-searching going with a man-advantage that has been both toothless and mistake-prone on far too many nights. 

In the Colorado loss a couple of early power-play possessions, one that was completely ineffectual with zero meaningful possession or shots on net and then a second that turned into a Nathan MacKinnon shorthanded goal, dropped the B’s into a hole they couldn’t climb out of. The shorthanded sequence was particularly damning with a desperate Torey Krug diving to keep a puck in the offensive zone, and then watching helpless as MacKinnon beat him to the loose puck and then took off down the ice behind the last line of B’s defense. 

Krug placed the blame on himself for the high-risk play at the offensive blue line, but it’s hard to wholly blame somebody that was using hustle to try and make something happen offensively. 

“I thought they were tired, and if I could keep it in then we keep them hemmed in and get them running around. At the end of the day, it’s a 50-50 play, but maybe early in my career, I learn that now and probably won’t do it anymore. Sometimes you’ve got to go through those things to learn,” said Krug. “It’s just one of those plays I thought instinctively I could get there and keep him hemmed in, and you could even tell when he went in on the breakaway that he was tired.

So, if I keep that in and we keep them hemmed in, hopefully we get a couple chances. But we’ve got to be better, some of our better players on our team, and we’ve got to take the onus on ourselves to start capitalizing on opportunities and changing the game for our team.”

Nobody is going to reasonably suggest that a dangerous power-play guy like Krug be removed from the special-teams unit, but clearly something needs to change. The Bruins are tied for 25th in the NHL on the power play with a 14.1 percent success rate, and they can’t blame lack of opportunities because they’re middle of the road when it comes to power-play chances this season. 

Only the Flyers, Stars and Blackhawks have allowed more shorthanded goals than the Bruins (four) in 28 games played as well, so the Black and Gold essentially aren’t playing good defense or offense on the power play this year. Krug saie that it’s a mindset thing and that the Bruins need to get back to the confident, energetic way they attacked penalty kills last season. 

“We want to make plays, we want to help our team. It’s not like we’re out there not trying to make plays or anything, but we just have to be better,” said Krug. “We’ve got to have better focus, crisper passes, making quick plays to the net and making things happen. I feel like right now we might just be standing there, [just kind of] static, just hoping that things are going to happen and we’re not making them happen. 

“So, we’ve got to change our mindset, and like I said, those guys on that unit are the guys that will go to work and make sure we’re better next time for our team.”

But it goes beyond simple approach. The Bruins lost their second-leading PP goal-scorer last season when Loui Eriksson signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Other top unit PP performers like David Krejci,  Krug and Ryan Spooner haven’t been as good this season. Still, perhaps the biggest reason is the all-around offensive disappearance of Patrice Bergeron, who had 12 goals and 13 assists on the PP last season for a team-best 25 power-play points. This season, Bergeron has one goal and two points on the PP in 25 games and has been neutralized by opposing penalty kills from his “bumper” position roving up and down the slot. 

The Bruins are determined to ride things out with Bergeron both five-on-five and on the PP, and rightfully so, given his quality, productive body of work with the Bruins. He’s Boston’s best player and you don’t ever go away from those guys. 

But Bergeron has been ordinary for the Bruins on the PP after being extraordinary last season, and not much is going to change with the B’s man advantage unless No. 37 begins to find the range, confidence and short-term quick burst that’s needed for the B’s power play to flow through him like a well-oiled scoring machine. A greater impact by David Backes on the net-front power play could help and an uptick in PP production from Krug, Krejci and Spooner would obviously be welcome for the Black and Gold. 

But the Bruins power play is designed to play off Bergeron’s many qualities and strengths when he’s at his best, and a big part of the B’s troubles and Bergeron’s troubles are linked together because No. 37 has been less than his best in a season that’s been challenging for him from the very beginning.