FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 30: Justin Francis #94 of the New England Patriots celebrates a sack against Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Miami Dolphins in the second half during the game at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The Patriots will have next week off thanks to the Texans, the league's best team for most of the season until losing three of its last four -- including a Week 17 no-show effort against the Colts. The latest setback dropped them from the AFC's No. 1 seed down to No. 3.
New England, by virtue of an identical 12-4 record but having beaten Houston head-to-head in Week 14, holds the tiebreaker over the Texans, which means they'll have a bye next week. The same holds for the Broncos (13-3), who have have the conference's best record and its top seed.
First things first: the Patriots needed to beat the Dolphins in Week 17 and they did exactly that, leading 21-0 at halftime before cruising to a 28-0 victory, putting them in the postseason for the 10th time in 11 years. As expected, quarterback Tom Brady played from start to finish (that's how Bill Belichick rolls, after all), and was an efficient 22-for-36 for 284 yards and two touchdowns -- the first a nine-yard pass to wide receiver Wes Welker, the second a 23-yarder to -- wait for it -- tight end Rob Gronkowski, who returned to the field for the first time since breaking his arm against the Colts a week before Thanksgiving.
Belichick hinted that Gronkowski would see limited action against the Dolphins and he ended the night with two catches for 42 yards. Now he'll have two weeks off before the Patriots host a divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
The Week 17 victory was notable for several reasons beyond the obvious; it was the team's first shutout since whipping the Titans in the snow, 59-0, back in 2009. And the defense, which has been the Pats' biggest question mark most of the season, registered seven sacks (a season high), including three from undrafted free agent Justin Francis, who had exactly zero sacks coming into the game.
Belichick was asked about the defense's progress in recent weeks.
"I don’t know," he said without emotion. "We played good today. We’ll see what happens the next time we play. Every week is its own challenge so we’ll see how we do against somebody else or what that matchup is. Today they did a good job. Anytime you can hold a team to no points in this league, you have to be doing something right."
The Patriots head into the postseason having won 10 of 11, and Brady was asked if the team is hitting its stride at the right time.
"We were 2-3 at one point," he said, "[and we] had some tough games early in the year. We won 10 of 11 and the only loss was a against a pretty good football team where we turned it over four times. So if we don’t turn it over four times, I like our chances."
Belichick, meanwhile, was asked about securing the bye and he was his usual laconic self.
"Whatever it is, it is," he said. "When we have to play we'll play."
And is that an advantage?
"I don't know," Belichick responded.
Yep, it's the playoffs.