FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick had laid it our clearly on Friday.
"There's nothing that we can do to help ourselves unless we beat Miami," the Patriots coach said when addressing the myriad of postseason possibilities they faced heading into Sunday. "There's nothing we can do to help our situation unless we win. So we have to win for anything positive to happen . . . "
How right he was. They won . . . and, on a frigid late afternoonearly evening at Gillette Stadium, positive things happened.
They got the break they needed at 1 o'clock, when the Colts knocked off the Texans. They proceeded to help themselves with a stifling 28-0 shutout of the Dolphins -- their first shutout since a 59-0 win over the Titans in late October 2009 -- that enabled them to leapfrog Houston into the second overall seed, which carries with it a first-round bye, in the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots and Texans both finished with 12-4 records, but New England won the tie-breaker thanks to its head-to-head victory over Houston three weeks ago.
"It's great," said safety Steve Gregory, whose first-half interception jump-started the Pats' beatdown of the Dolphins. "Any time you can get a bye in the first round of the playoffs, it's a good thing."
The Pats didn't get any 4 o'clock help from the Chiefs, as Denver blasted Kansas City and clinched the overall No. 1 seed. So -- unlike their last two trips to the AFC Championship Game -- they'll have to go on the road if form holds and the Pats and Broncos win their semifinal-round matchups.
"Whatever it is, it is," said Belichick. "Wherever we have to play in the postseason, we'll play."
But the case can be made that the bye -- which gives them a week to rest their ailing troops (no fewer than 21 players were on last week's injury list) -- is just as important as the seeding.
"It's good to get that rest, get some guys healthy," said Gregory. "I know some guys are banged up, so it's good for us."
The Pats took care of it early.
Gregory's interception on Miami's second possession gave the Patriots the ball on the Dolphin 28, and Tom Brady got them home in two plays: A 19-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski, playing his first game since suffering a broken arm against Indianapolis on Nov. 18, and a 9-yard scoring toss to Wes Welker.
That made it 7-0, and may as well have been 70-0 the way the Pats' defense was handling the Dolphin offense. The Pats held Miami to 45 total yards in the first quarter (New England had 172), and only 106 yards in the first half. (New England had 279. The final Patriot advantage was 443-256.). They limited the Dolphins to 24:22 possession time, and had a season-high seven quarterback sacks.
Miami's only threat came in the third quarter, but then the defense made another big play: Dont'e Hightower recovered a botched handoff by quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the Patriots' 1-yard line.
"That's always awesome, when you walk away with a goose egg on the scoreboard," said defensive captain Vince Wilfork. "That's very, very satisfying."
By that time the score was 21-0 thanks to a pair of second-quarter touchdowns by Stevan Ridley. The first, from one yard out, capped a 13-play, 92-yard drive; the second, from two yards away, finished off a 14-play, 69-yard march.
The Patriots added their final touchdown in the fourth quarter when, after the defense had stopped Miami on fourth down and gave the offense the ball at the Dolphin 47, Brady hit Gronkowski with a 23-yard touchdown pass.
So now -- after the week off -- the second season begins. And the Pats' aim is to rise to the challenge as well as they did Sunday evening.
"We've got to start playing our best football from here on in, and tonight was a good night to start it," said Wilfork.
"I think everyone knows once you go into the playoffs, teams step it up a notch, so were going to have to do our part and try to step it up and match them," said Devin McCourty.
"If we keep improving and getting better, well be able to get there."