Patriots finish in style with 38-7 rout of Dolphins

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Patriots finish in style with 38-7 rout of Dolphins

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

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 amartone@comcastsportsnet.com.

Secretary of Navy: Cardona 'may have to leave the Patriots' to serve

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Secretary of Navy: Cardona 'may have to leave the Patriots' to serve

United States Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus joined the Dan Patrick Show on Thursday to discuss new Ravens draftee Keenan Reynolds, a record-setting quarterback during his career at the Naval Academy. In so doing, Mabus hit on the uncertain status of Patriots long-snapper Joe Cardona. 

"Right now we do have a process," Mabus said. "It hasn't got up to me yet to [decide on whether or not Reynolds will be eligible to play], but there are a lot of paths to both play and to serve. 

"We've got Joe Cardona, long snapper for the Patriots. He played . . . last year for the Patriots while he was on active duty because he was able to work them both out. Now he's been assigned to a ship, and he's going to report to that ship. He may have to leave the Patriots for a year or so to go fulfill that roll."

The playing status for individuals like Reynolds and Cardona is always somewhat uncertain given their commitment. Last season, Cardona was able to serve by working at the Naval Preparatory Academy during his time away from the Patriots facilities. Once his rookie season ended, he headed back to the Newport, Rhode Island-based school to work full-time and help mentor students there. 

Cardona was scheduled to make his way to Norfolk, Virginia later in the offseason and live there for about two months to participate in the Navy's Basic Division Officer Course, or "BDOC," which was required before he could report to his ship as a Surface Warfare Officer. From there, he was scheduled to travel to Bath, Maine, to work on the USS Zumwalt. 

"I'll get to work there and figure out a schedule that doesn't interfere with either of my jobs," Cardona said back in January following New England's loss to Denver in the AFC title game, "and hopefully be back on the field next year."

Cardona has long maintained that his job as an active member of the Navy is his top priority. Should his duties on the USS Zumwalt interfere with his long-snapping work with the Patriots, he could realistically sit out for the season. 

The Patriots signed veteran long-snapper Christian Yount earlier this offseason in a move that reminded those following the team that Cardona is not guaranteed to be available for 2016. Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich has long-snapped in the past and typically serves as the team's emergency snapper. 

Cardona was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and played in all 16 regular-season games and two postseason games for the Patriots last season. 

Reese Witherspoon tries to recruit Malcolm Mitchell for her book club

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Reese Witherspoon tries to recruit Malcolm Mitchell for her book club

Malcolm Mitchell's on-the-field ability got him drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots last weekend, but his off-the-field story has garnered just as much -- if not more -- attention.

Mitchell's story, at this point, has been well-told. The 6-foot, 198-pound receiver arrived at the University of Georgia able to read at only a middle-school level. But while on campus his love of reading steadily grew, and he has since become a strong advocate for children's literacy. He's written his own children's book, The Magician's Hat, and he even joined a book club in the Athens, Georgia area made up of women about twice his age and older. 

Though his fellow book club members plan to make a visit to Gillette Stadium at some point this season to watch Mitchell play, he may be in the market for a new group now that he'll be moving to New England. 

Actress Reese Witherspoon was so inspired by Mitchell's story that she tried to recruit him to her own book club. Using Twitter to make the connection, Witherspoon happily engaged Mitchell in a back-and-forth where the two shared some of their favorite reading list suggestions.

Mitchell will soon be in Foxboro for Patriots rookie minicamp so he'll likely have to devote an inordinate amount of time to digesting his new playbook, but it seems like he now has a few other items on his to-do list thanks to his new pal.

Putting Gronkowski deal in context after Washington gives Reed extension

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Putting Gronkowski deal in context after Washington gives Reed extension

Rob Gronkowski's contract with the Patriots continues to look like a relative bargain as tight ends around the league haul in big money on a per-year basis. 

On Thursday, Washington announced that it had come to terms on a long-term contract extension with tight end Jordan Reed. The deal is reportedly worth $50 million over five years, including $22 million guaranteed. 

That's not a bad pay day for a player who has missed 14 games due to injury over the course of his first three seasons. When healthy, he's proven to be one of the most dynamic players at his position -- playing more as an over-sized wide receiver at 6-foot-3, 236 pounds than a true dual-threat tight end -- and now he's being paid as such. 

Reed's new contract allows us an opportunity to take another look at Gronkowski's deal, which has come into focus ever since he sent out a tweet in March that indicated he felt as though he was taking a pay cut when the Patriots picked up an option that would keep him in New England through 2019.

In the tweet, Gronkowski said he doesn't play for the money -- and according to him he hasn't spent a dime of what the Patriots have paid him since entering the league -- but it seemed to be relatively clear that the structure of his contract was on his mind when he took to social media.

Gronkowski signed a six-year, $54 million extension in 2012. By then he had proven how important he was to the Patriots offense, but he had a lengthy injury history going back to his college playing days. At the time, a deal that both paid him at the top of the market and gave him a measure of security was welcomed with open arms.

Now here we are in 2016, and the market has shifted. The salary cap has increased and many teams have opted to pay their tight ends bigger chunks of the pie, sliding Gronkowski down the list of highest-paid players at that position based on average annual value. 

Reed and Seattle's Jimmy Graham ($10 million) now top the list. Kansas City's Travis Kelce ($9.4 million) and Jacksonville's Julius Thomas ($9.2 million) also fall in ahead of Gronkowski.

Considering where those players stack up with Gronkowski in terms of production, the Patriots' All-Pro seems to have every right to furrow his brow when he looks at his contract by comparison. 

It could be a while though before Gronkowski sees any alterations to his income, however. First and foremost, he still had four years remaining on his contract as it's currently constructed. The Patriots front office gambled and won with the deal they gave him four years ago, and barring a holdout, they'd have little incentive to re-work it. 

There's also the matter of where Gronkowski's deal falls in terms of the team's list of priorities. He's at least still paid near the top of the market at his position.

There are several of his teammates -- corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Jabaal Sheard and receiver Julian Edelman -- who are either a) about to become free agents after the 2016 or b) could make the argument that they're even more significantly underpaid than Gronkowski. Some fall under both categories. 

As great as Gronkowski has been, and as important as he is to his team's success, he may have to take his place in line when it comes to receiving a deal that more favorably reflects his value.