MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. Next up, Houston.
And the way things went down on a warm, windy Sunday in South Florida was excellent preparation for the battle that awaits the Patriots against the AFCs best team.
After winning their past four games by an average of 27 points, the Patriots had to grind on Sunday to emerge with their 23-16 win. Grind hard.
There wasnt an easy throw out there, said Tom Brady after soldiering through a game in which the Dolphins front-seven cuffed him around for the final three quarters.
The weekly worry about whether Brady might get dented while playing at the end of a blowout was put on the back burner this time as the Patriots needed Brady and the rest of the offense to twist the screws on Miami in the final eight minutes.
A 16-play drive that ended with a field goal to make it 23-13 with 70 seconds left did the trick. That possession, even though it didnt end with seven points, can serve as a confidence-builder for what awaits when the Texans come to town. Even though Houstons been a little more permissive on defense over the past month, they are still one of the NFLs most disruptive groups. And if the Patriots are going to hand the Texans their second loss of the year, they will probably find themselves in a closeout situation similar to the one they faced Sunday.
That was a grind right there, said Donald Thomas who was again holding down the left guard spot as Logan Mankins calf continues to heal. Youre sore during the game and youre feeling it and youre into it and its not gonna come easy. It wasnt like the past few weeks where we were scoring at a rapid rate. It was more of a dogfight. We knew before the game started. We knew it wasnt gonna be (easy). Theyre a good team. This team, I know theyre not gonna lay down and just give it to us . . . That drive was exactly what we needed. I think we had eight minutes when we went out there, we gave it up with less than two minutes. It was a seven-point game, then once we got into field goal range the focus was on getting a touchdown but the main thing was eating up clock and getting a score and giving our defense time to breathe.
The Patriots offensive line needs its best guys back out there. Mankins at left guard, Dan Connolly at right guard and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. Sunday was a little messy up front and the way the Patriots offense stagnated through the second and third quarters cant be repeated against a Houston team which will put up points a lot faster than the Dolphins could.
Mankins participation in practice will be a story to watch this week. He needs to get his wind and his mobility back before going up against that Houston front. The Patriots will have to sweat the availability of Connolly as well. He left Sunday with a back injury and, after Nick McDonald struggled to replace Connolly, Marcus Cannon stepped in for McDonald. Vollmer, who said after the game that he was feeling good, is playing with a back injury as well. He was a game-time decision on Sunday and while he mostly kept Cameron Wake in check, hes not at full strength, it seems.
But the Patriots were still able to summon enough to impose their will on the ground with Stevan Ridley and a dash of Shane Vereen on the Patriots last drive.
When you run the ball like that its somewhat on the O-line, the running backs and receivers, Vollmer explained. It feels good. Sometimes you gotta do that and we were able to do that today and it was big. We ran seven minutes off the clock and that was necessary. Hopefully we continue to do that.
Even though New England has two more losses than the Texans, the Patriots are still the conference gold standard. And Houston wont just be playing to solidify their hold on the No. 1 seed but also to get an appraisal of where they are.
We know were gonna get the best shot from every team we play and thats what Miami did, said Jerod Mayo.
Asked when the Patriots will turn their attention fully to the Texans, Mayo thought for a moment, smiled and said, Tomorrow.
Tomorrow is now today. And the Patriots are facing their toughest opponent of the season in a week. Its good that they got their nose bloodied a little bit on Sunday.
Because the grind is on.