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."

NFL combine preview: Tight ends

NFL combine preview: Tight ends

With the NFL combine about to begin -- and the NFL Draft just about two months away -- we'll take a daily look at the collegiate talent available at positions where the Patriots might be looking for help. We start today with: Tight ends.

On Tuesday, players will arrive in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine, with on-field workouts beginning Friday. 

The second group to take the field is the tight end group, which should be worth watching for a number of reasons. For starters, Todd McShay says that this is “a good year to need a tight end” given that there could be three first-rounders in O.J. Howard, David Njoku and Jake Butt.

Furthermore, Martellus Bennett’s potential departure and Rob Gronkowski’s durability questions make tight end a position the Patriots could target early come April 27. 

Here’s a quick look at each of the 19 tight ends invited to the combine: 

O.J. Howard, Alabama, 6-foot-6, 249 pounds

- NFL.com describes him as an “exceptionally gifted athlete” and says that his “play speed resembles a wide receiver’s when the ball is in the air.” They add he “appears passive” as a blocker and “need more muscle and mass to be an in-line blocker as a pro.”

David Njoku, Miami, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds

- Not the biggest guy in the world at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, but is considered a top-end athlete. NFL.com says he “should annihilate the combine with monster numbers in speed and explosion.”

Jake Butt, Michigan, 6-foot-6, 250 pounds 

- Does everything well, but could stand to fill out his frame a bit more. 

Jordan Leggett, Clemson, 6-foot-5, 250 pounds

- Not considered a great blocker and has admitted that he’s played lazily. Could the Pats fix his motor? 

Gerald Everett, South Alabama, 6-foot-3, 227 pounds

- Very interesting prospect. Primarily a basketball player in high school who played just one year of football (insert Antonio Gates basketball reference), Everett played at Alabama-Birmingham before the school cut its football program. Upon transferring to South Alabama, Everett showed his skills as a pass-catching tight end. 

Evan Engram, Mississippi, 6-foot-3, 236 pounds

- Itty bitty for a tight end, and he doesn’t have the greatest hands either. Described as a “move tight end only who lacks dependability as a blocker.”   

He was one of five who for second in the nation among tight ends with eight touchdowns last season. Other guys in that group were Njoku, Hayden Plinke,  Cole Hikutini and UMass’ Adam Breneman.

Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech, 6-foot-7, 245 pounds

- Just your average quarterback-turned-tight-end. The lanky Hodges would be a good fit for the Patriots simply because it would give Julian Edelman a break from the constant mention during broadcasts that he used to be a QB. 

Cole Hikutini, Louisville, 6-foot-5, 248 pounds

- A good athlete who isn’t much of a blocker.

Adam Shaheen, Ashland, 6-foot-6, 277 pounds

- Former college basketball player transferred from Pittsburgh-Johnstown to Ashland to focus on football and eventually established himself as a dominant player at the Division II level. He’s certainly got the size and strength, but questions will persist about just how similarly he holds up going from Division II to the NFL. 

Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas, 6-foot-5, 265 pounds

- Big, physical tight end with a solid stiff arm. Sprinkle was suspended by Arkansas for the Belk Bowl because he stole from a Belk department store after each player had been given $450 to spend there. He was arrested for the incident, as he stole $260 worth of extra items.

Pharoh Brown, Oregon, 6-foot-6, 245 pounds

- Not considered the athlete he was prior to a 2014 injury that nearly resulted in his leg being amputated. 

Michael Roberts, Toledo, 6-foot-4, 261 pounds

- Huge hands, which he uses to catch better than block. He led all FBS tight ends with 16 touchdowns last season. 

Jonnu Smith, Florida International, 6-foot-3, 245 pounds

- College career was ended prematurely when his pregnant girlfriend poured boiling water on him, resulting in severe burns throughout his upper body, including his head. He has good speed, but drops were an issue in college. 

Scott Orndoff, Pittsburgh, 6-foot-5, 256 pounds

- Figures to be a solid blocking tight end, but he also had five receiving touchdowns as a senior. 

Eric Saubert, Drake, 6-foot-5, 251 pounds

- Every draft pick is a gamble, but Saubert might be more so than others. An AFC regional scout says that Saubert is “body beautiful but he can’t catch. I don’t think it’s correctable, either.”

Cethan Carter, Nebraska, 6-foot-4, 240 pounds

- Elbow injuries figure to be a topic at the combine, and he had various injuries throughout his college career. 

Darrell Daniels, Washington, 6-foot-4, 246 pounds

- A scout told NFL.com that Daniels is "going to test through the roof and he's going to get overdrafted on the traits.” The Patriots don’t typically fall into such traps. 

George Kittle, Iowa, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds

- Only had one drop as a senior, but then again being believed to have had no drops in college doesn’t make a guy an NFL stud. 

Hayden Plinke, UTEP, 6-foot-4, 265 pounds

- Transferred twice in his college career, starting at Boise State, then Portland State and finally UTEP. Is considered a good blocker who grabbed eight touchdowns as a senior. 
 

Haggerty's Morning Skate: Two AHL teams recreate Slap Shot on the movie's anniversary

Haggerty's Morning Skate: Two AHL teams recreate Slap Shot on the movie's anniversary

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while so glad to see Dave Strader getting the play-by-play call in this afternoon’s national NBC broadcast of Stars and Bruins from Dallas.
 
-- Jeremy Roenick weighs in with some trade possibilities involving Avalanche and Blues players in what could be a blockbuster at the deadline.
 
-- Antoine Vermette acknowledges his wrongdoing in making a statement about his 10-game suspension for slashing an official, but feels like the punishment was too severe.
 
-- Don Cherry wishes a happy 40th anniversary to Slap Shot while wearing a Charleston Chiefs jersey as he hosts Coaches Corner.
 
-- Speaking of Slap Shot, what an Old Time Hockey fight between the AHL's Iowa Wild and Chicago Wolves. It spilled into the hallway afterward . . . that’s when things get real.

-- I've been asked multiple times about the white Boston hat David Pastrnak is always wearing in the Bruins dressing room, so here it is.

 -- Here’s all the Dallas Stars info you need ahead of this afternoon’s 11:30 a.m. local start in Dallas for the Stars and Bruins.

-- PHT writer Cam Tucker has Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning indicating that the mumps outbreak for his team won’t impact the trade deadline.
 
-- For something completely different: the headline seems a little click baity to me, but I’ll read about anything involving Homer Simpson and the Baseball Hall of Fame.