By Art Martone
FOXBORO -- With nothing to play for except pride, the Patriots made the last in a series of resounding regular-season statements Sunday.
Even with coach Bill Belichick substituting liberally -- and most of New England hoping for nothing more than an injury-free afternoon -- the Pats thrashed the Dolphins, 38-7, putting an emphatic exclamation point on one of the most surprising, and satisfying, regular seasons in franchise history.
Other Patriots teams have finished with the same 14-2 record as this one, but none of those teams went into the year with expectations as low as they were for these Pats. The general feeling was that 10 wins might be their upper limit, and missing the playoffs entirely was thought to be a distinct possibility.
But New England rebuilt itself on offense after the Randy Moss trade, matured on defense, and got better as the year went along. The Pats won their last eight games, scoring 31 or more points in all of them, as they finished with the top overall seed.
The Patriots last lost on Nov. 7, a 34-14 whipping at the hands of the Browns, and after Sunday's game Vince Wilfork pointed to that day as the turning point of the season.
"The road wasn't smooth all the way and I think after the Cleveland game, it was really a gut check," said Wilfork. "Reality set in . . .
"I think from that point on, guys really buckled down and started to understand, 'Hey, anybody is beatable' . . . I think from that point on, guys just really hated the taste of losing."
That they did. From that day forward the Pats were undefeated, outscored their opponents 299-125, and secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. And take note, defense-wins-championship crowd: New England has held the opposition to single-digit scoring in four of the last five games.
Sunday was more of the same. The onslaught was kickstarted on the first drive of the game by Devin McCourty, whose seventh interception of the year gave the Patriots possession on the Miami 47. Six plays later, on a third-and-two from the Dolphins 13, Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski in the left flat of the end zone for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Danny Woodhead -- who had a key 19-yard run during the first scoring drive -- committed the first Patriots turnover in seven games on the Pats' next drive, fumbling (and suffering a concussion that knocked him out of the game) on the New England 34. But the Pats' defense stiffened, and the Dolphins came away empty when Dan Carpenter missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt.
That, as it turned out, was Miami's last gasp. It took the Pats only four plays -- a seven-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis; a 22-yard completion from Brady to Julian Edelman; a 40-yard completion from Brady to Edelman, and a one-yard scoring run by Green-Ellis -- to increase their lead to 14-0, and the rout was on.
It looked as if Brady's day was done when he was replaced by Brian Hoyer midway throught the second quarter, but all it took was a pair of incompletions to prompt coach Bill Belichick to reinsert his All-Pro quarterback. The move paid no dividends on that drive -- Brady threw an incompletion of his own on third-and-10 and the Pats were forced to punt -- but it did on the next one, as he directed a 49-yard drive that ended with a 28-yard Shayne Graham field goal, making it 17-0.
Then it was Edelman's turn to grab the spotlight. Dolphins punter Brandon Fields outkicked his coverage with a 61-yard drive that forced Edelman back to his 6-yard line.Edelman caught the punt, avoided a tackle at the point of reception, snaked his way through two openings, broke to the left and raced 94 yards to the end zone, giving the Patriots a 24-0 lead.
It was the longest punt return in Patriots history, and it made up for the TD Edelman lost on a punt return three weeks ago in Chicago, which was negated by a penalty.
Brady came back out for the first drive of the third quarter and marched the Pats 78 yards in 7 plays -- keys: a 26-yard completion to Gronkowski, which moved the ball to the Pats' 43, and a 40-yard catch-and-run by Brandon Tate that got it to the Miami 10 -- and make the score 31-0. Brady hit Alge Crumpler with a 10-yard pass for the touchdown.
Hoyer replaced Brady for good on the next series, which began with 10:15 to go in the third quarter, but you wouldn't have known it. He drove the Pats 85 yards in 8 plays, capping the drive with his first NFL touchdown pass: A 42-yard bomb down the left sideline to Tate, who made a spectacular leaping catch that increased New England's lead to 38-0.
"That was a play Brandon and I talked about before, and we just kind of had a good feeling about it going into the game," said Hoyer. "He made a tremendous catch . . . he really went out and got it."
"That was real good for Hoyer's first one," said Tate.
All that was left was Green-Ellis' quest for a 1,000-yard rushing season, which he accomplished with a 10-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter. That got him to 1,008 for the year, earned him a big hug from Belichick when he reached the sideline, and ended his day.
The Dolphins finally broke through with 2:11 left on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Thigpen to Davone Bess.
Now the Pats take the next week off as they wait to find out the identity of their playoff opponent, but if you think they'll spend that week resting on their laurels -- or making "I think we're going to win it this year" proclamations, as Jets coach Rex Ryan did Sunday after his team's victory over Buffalo -- well, you know the Patriots better than that.
"After watching film of Sunday's game," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, "I'm sure Coach Belichick will knock us right back down."
"Bill will obviously keep us focused, keep us humble, keep us striving to play better week in and week out," said safety James Sanders.
But even so, a little bit of pride -- just a little -- was evident Sunday.
"The guys on this team, we know the kind of team we have here and what we're capable of doing," said Sanders.
"Fourteen-and-two," said Mayo's fellow linebacker, Rob Ninkovich. "That's not bad."
No, it's not.
Art Martone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.