Patriots clinch first-round bye with 28-0 shutout of Dolphins

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Patriots clinch first-round bye with 28-0 shutout of Dolphins

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."

Garoppolo: Get the little things corrected, or they'll bite us in the butt

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Garoppolo: Get the little things corrected, or they'll bite us in the butt

 

This felt like a step backward for Jimmy Garoppolo. 

The preseason had been shaping up so nicely for him, too. He'd be able to ride the wave of momentum following his strong performance last week against the Bears, and carry that into Carolina, where he would take on a very good defense on the road. What better way to simulate what he'll see in Week 1 of the regular season in Arizona?

Then something happened. Garoppolo, who looked cool last week at Gillette Stadium, seemed rattled by the Panthers defense. The quarterback who hadn't turned the ball over all preseason very nearly gave it away twice. Whereas he made calculated risks in the red zone last week, this week there were head-scratchers in the same area. 

"Ups and downs," said Garoppolo, who beat the Panthers, 19-17, and finished the game 9-for-15 for 57 yards. "Just little things here and there we need to get corrected. We’ll take care of it."

Garoppolo's first third-down throw foreshadowed what was to come for the Patriots on third down Friday night. He threw what should have been an easy interception for linebacker Luke Kuechly when there was a miscommunication between him and receiver Julian Edelman. 

Edelman stopped and turned for a pass a few yards off the line of scrimmage. Garoppolo targeted him as though he was still moving, hitting Kuechly between the numbers at the Carolina 12-yard line.

The team started the night 0-for-7 on third down.

"It’s my fault. I can’t put it in the linebacker’s hands like that," said Garoppolo, who insisted splitting reps in practice wasn't to his detriment. "It’s just bottom line. Just got to be smart. It’s tight windows, tight throws. Just got to finish with touchdowns."

Later in the game, Garoppolo didn't recognize a Panthers pressure, he took a glancing blow from a defender and escaped the pocket. Rather than throw the football away, he tried to make a positive play and was stripped from behind by linebacker Thomas Davis. 

Patriots running back James White was there to pounce on the ball, and Garoppolo was fortunate to escape with his turnover column clean.  

Still, Garoppolo knows there are adjustments to make. In order to give the Patriots a chance to beat the Cardinals in Week 1, he'll probably have to play better than he did on Friday. 

“We’ll do our best to get in there,” Garoppolo said. “We have two weeks until then and we’ll work. There’s little things here and there. Overall, there’s some good things that we did tonight. 

"We just have to get the little things corrected or they’re going to bite us in the butt. We’re going to work our tails off to get to that point. We’ll get there.”

Running back D.J. Foster making a late push for Patriots roster spot

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Running back D.J. Foster making a late push for Patriots roster spot

CHARLOTTE – D.J. Foster began making his case to stick on the Patriots’ 53-man roster Friday night against the Panthers.

An undrafted pass-catching back from Arizona State who’d missed almost all of training camp with an unknown injury was pretty persuasive. He caught three passes for 33 yards, showing nice burst, carried twice for 9 and returned a punt for 16. He saw his action late in the third with fellow rookie Jacoby Brissett in at quarterback.

Foster punctuated his first reception – an 11-yard screen that Brissett (9-for-9 for 85 yards and a touchdown) – by lowering his shoulder and delivering a blow that Foster said he wanted to “get that adrenaline going.”

“It felt great,” said Foster. “It had been a long time. I was telling some guys, that was the first time I’d gotten hit since college. It felt good to get back out there. The coaches gave me a chance to get out there and show what I could do.”

James White will be the Patriots sub-back (or third down back or pass-catching back or whatever you want to call him) until Dion Lewis returns from his knee malady. But Foster showed the acceleration and quickness that made him such a productive player for the Sun Devils. With 222 receptions for 2,458 yards and another 2,355 on the ground, Foster would fit nicely in an offense like the Patriots that uses the short and intermediate passing game so well.  

He hasn’t had much chance to make a case to stick and the Patriots – with White, LeGarrette Blount, Tyler Gaffney, Brandon Bolden and Joey Iosefa all in the mix – may have to take their chances with releasing Foster and hoping he goes unclaimed so New England can bring him back for their practice squad. It’s a risk, but other teams are encountering the same issues at cutdown time. Do they pluck a player they passed on in the draft and put him on their roster ahead of players they’ve been working with since the spring?

Bill Belichick wasn’t effusive in his praise for Foster but did indicate it was a good opportunity to at least see him in game action.

“We played a couple of guys that haven’t gotten much playing time so we got a chance to look at them,” he explained. “D.J. is one of those so we wanted to give him a few opportunities to handle the ball because he hasn’t done it this year. I thought he did some good things. There are a couple of things that he could do a little better but we’ll look at the film and see how it goes. He did a couple of things with his chances out there.”

To make the most of those chances, Foster said he avoided getting too hyped before getting on the field.  
 
“Just keeping my calm and hearing the playcall and just doing the mechanics and all the fundamentals of being in the backfield (was the focus),” said Foster. "Coach Ivan (Fears, running backs coach) did a great job of keeping me mellow. I felt healthy, I felt really good. I got some punt returns, some kick returns, some special teams. I was seeking contact to get that adrenaline going.

“It’s a long process,” he acknowledged. “Talking to the veteran guys, they said it’s a long process. I knew battling my injury and come back healthy, I came back strong and I felt ready.”

We’ll see if it’s enough to carve out a niche on the roster. The cutdown to 75 players comes Tuesday.