Unlike three of the previous four games, Sunday's matchup against the Dolphins wasn't a convincing win for the Patriots. Coming off a month that saw New England score 45, 37, 59 and 49 points -- all victories, by the way -- they managed just 23 points against Miami's 17. But there are plenty of ways to win a football game, and as the season progresses the Patriots are becoming proficient in doing just that.
Tom Brady has been putting the team on his shoulders for years but on Sunday the offense wasn't its usual explosive self. And a lot of credit has to go to the Dolphins' defense, which harassed Brady for most of the afternoon. Which is why it was nice to see the defense pick up the slack. This is the same defense that was much maligned a year ago -- and as recently as a month ago. But they've improved as the season progressed, and it's not a coincidence that the secondary improved with the arrival of Aqib Talib.
But as happens almost every week, Brady wasn't interested in the long-term implications of a Sunday victory. Yes, the Patriots have captured the AFC East title 13 weeks into the season but that wasn't the ultimate goal in training camp.
"I think we're a long ways from (thinking about the Super Bowl)," Brady said after the game. "You can't play in that game without improving through the month of December. And November, December, that's when it's really important. I think we've done that. We keep working hard. We listen to our coaching. We've won some great games here the past six weeks."
And while 9-3 is nice, this is where the season begins for teams eyeing the postseason.
"This is when the best teams really start to separate themselves. Your depth is challenged, your mental toughness is challenged, fighting through the bumps and bruises of a long season is a challenge, and getting contributions from a lot of people is a challenge," Brady said. "That's what you need this time of year. You need to continue to get better and better and better, and string games together, string practices together, so when you need it the most, you've got it in the bank."
The Pats face the Texans next week, and finish out with games against the 49ers, Jags and Dolphins. Coach Bill Belichick has never been one to sit his players, even with the season has long been decided, so expect more of the same in the coming weeks.
"We have a long way to go. We still have a quarter of the season left," Belichick said. "And that's a lot of opportunities for us to improve, which we need to do."
Yep, that sounds about right.