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."

NFLPA tells rookies to be like Rob Gronkowski

NFLPA tells rookies to be like Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski is a model citizen in the NFL. In fact, the NFL Players Association is advising rookies to be more like Gronk, according to The Boston Globe

The New England Patriots tight end has developed a name for himself on and off the football field. With that attention comes branding. And at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere from May 18 to 20, the NFLPA encouraged rookies to develop their own brand -- much like Gronkowski.

“Some people think he’s just this extension of a frat boy, and that it’s sort of accidental,” Ahmad Nassar said, via The Globe. Nassar is the president of NFL Players Inc., the for-profit subsidiary of the NFLPA. “And that’s wrong. It’s not accidental, it’s very purposeful. So the message there is, really good branding is where you don’t even feel it. You think, ‘Oh, that’s just Gronk being Gronk.’ Actually, that’s his brand, but it’s so good and so ingrained and so authentic, you don’t even know it’s a brand or think it.”

Gronkowski's "Summer of Gronk" has indirectly become one of his streams of income. The tight end makes appearances for magazines and sponsors. Because of his earnings from branding and endorsements, he didn't touch his NFL salary during the early years of his career.

Gronk was one of three players who were the topics of discussion during the symposium. Dak Prescott and Odell Beckham were also used as examples of players who have been able to generate additional income from endorsements. Beckham, in particular, has been in the spotlight off the football field. He's appeared on the cover of Madden, and just signed a deal with NIke which is reportedly worth $25 million over five years with upwards of $48 million over eight years. His deal, which is a record for an NFL player, will pay him more than his contract with the Giants.

“A lot of people talk to the players about, ‘You should be careful with your money and you should treat your family this way and you should treat your girlfriend or your wife.’ Which is fine. I think that’s valuable,” Nassar said, via The Globe. “But we don’t often give them a chance to answer the question: How do you see yourself as a brand? Because Gronk, Odell, none of those guys accidentally ended up where they are from a branding and marketing standpoint.”

Morning Skate: Sidney Crosby has been a good ambassador as the face of his NHL generation

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Morning Skate: Sidney Crosby has been a good ambassador as the face of his NHL generation

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while wishing everybody a safe and relaxing Memorial Day weekend. 

*Apparently Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette has yet to try Nashville’s hot chicken despite his time behind the Preds bench. It’s okay, I have yet to try it either in my handful of visits to Music City. 

*Good stuff from PHT writer and FOH (Friend of Haggs) Jason Brough. Apparently it wasn’t so easy to make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed when it came time for director Doug Liman to cut Swingers together

*Sidney Crosby cares about the history and the issues of the game, and has been a good ambassador as the face of his NHL generation despite the hate that always comes with such responsibility. 

*Puck Daddy examines Crosby’s performance in the playoffs, and the odds of him winning another Conn Smythe Trophy. 

*The Penguins have made it to the Stanley Cup Final without Kris Letang for their playoff run, and that’s an amazing accomplishment. 

*Erik Karlsson said that he will be tending to his injured foot next week, and expects a full recovery for next season after a brilliant run with his Ottawa Senators

*Larry Brooks again rails against the Stanley Cup playoff structure and it’s relation to an “absurd regular season.” Say what you will, but the fact the Penguins are there for a second straight season shoots down some of the absurdity stuff in my mind. The best team from the East is where they should be and they did it without Kris Letang to boot. 

*Chicago Blackhawks prospect Alex Debrincat is confident his abilities will translate to the NHL despite his size after taking home honors as the best player in junior hockey this season. 

*For something completely different: Apparently there’s a hard core comic book geek gripe that “The Flash” is burning through bad guys too quickly. This would make sense if they couldn’t revisit these bad guys at any point, but they absolutely can go back to a big bad like Grodd anytime they want.