As the New England Patriots prepare for a Monday night showdown with the AFC-leading Houston Texans, we look back to what we learned from the Pats' win over the AFC East rival Miami Dolphins last weekend.
It wasn't pretty, but the New England Patriots came through with a 23-16 road victory on Sunday afternoon in Miami.
Here are the five most important things that we learned.
AFC East Champions - Four Years Running
For the fourth consecutive year, the New England Patriots are champions of the AFC East division. Not since 2008 when Matt Cassel was at the helm of the New England offense have the Patriots finished anywhere but first in their division. With the division wrapped up and a home-field playoff game guaranteed, the Patriots can now turn their attention to the chase of a first round bye. They were given a little bit of help this week when the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked off the Baltimore Ravens, 23-20 in overtime. The Patriots and Ravens are both 9-3, but Baltimore still holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. Next week's showdown with the conference-leading Houston Texans will go a long way towards determining the Patriots playoff seeding in January.
Stephen Gostkowski still not getting the job done...
Albeit a 49-yard attempt, Stephen Gostkowski still missed yet another field goal for the Patriots this Sunday. It was his sixth miss of the season and the third consecutive game in which he's failed to convert on at least one field goal attempt. Fortunately for New England, his miss against the Dolphins didn't come back to haunt them, but with high-profile match-ups against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers on the slate and the playoffs right around the corner, the Patriots simply cannot afford to have their highly-paid place kicker missing a field goal in every game. I wouldn't suggest the idea of cutting Gostkowski at this point in the season, but brining in a veteran on a tryout sometime this week may not be the worst move for head coach Bill Belichick.
In our "Five things to watch for" piece for this game, I suggested that struggling cornerback Kyle Arrington be assigned the job of covering famed Patriots-killer Davone Bess who plays the position of slot receiver for the Dolphins. Not only did Arrington take on the tough job of keeping up with the speedy and shifty wide out, but he did so with great proficiency. Arrington blanketed Bess all afternoon, keeping No. 15 to just one reception and 13 yards through the air. The Patriots should hope that a performance like this helps build confidence for Arrington as they'll need him to be in top-shape come playoff time.
Pass defense improving... for the moment
13-29, 186 yards, 0 touchdowns, 66.2 quarterback rating. Anyone have a guess on which NFL signal caller's Sunday performance those numbers represent? Well, the answer is Dolphins' rookie Ryan Tannehill. The Patriots' pass defense had one of the best efforts of the season thus far, holding the former Texas A & M star to those mediocre numbers you see above. Newcomer Aqib Talib struggled a bit against Miami's top wide receiver, Brian Hartline, but improved safety play and another strong outing for rookie Alfonzo Dennard kept the Patriots in the game on a day in which their offense wasn't nearly as proficient as it typically is. Sunday's performance is a huge step forward for the Patriots and their playoff chances this winter.
Front seven strong... True test comes next week
The New England front seven was stout once again on Sunday, holding Miami running back Reggie Bush to just 64 yards on the ground with a total of 15 carries. Reserve back Daniel Thomas contributed 10 more yards on 5 attempts of his own. The Patriots' run defense has been one of the team's strongest assets all season long and this week against the Dolphins was no different. The real challenge will come next week when one of the NFL's top running backs comes to town in the form of Texans' superstar Arian Foster.
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