Miami, FL – The New England Patriots clinched the AFC East on Sunday. It was far from easy, however.
Tom Brady's rhythm was disrupted by a spirited Miami defense, but the Patriots capitalized on several miscues on their way to a 23-16 victory at Sun Life Stadium.
Brady was 24-of-40 for 238 yards with one touchdown pass to Wes Welker and a rare interception.
Stevan Ridley scored on a short touchdown run and picked up critical yards on a fourth-quarter drive to help New England (9-3) prevail and capture the division crown for the 10th time in 12 years.
"We accomplished one of our goals this year, to be in the postseason," said New England coach Bill Belichick, who picked up his 201st career win, tying him with Dan Reeves for seventh place all-time. "That's good, but more importantly we just got to keep working to get better."
Welker had 103 yards on 12 grabs, tying Jerry Rice's NFL record for most games with 10-plus receptions at 17.
Rookie Ryan Tannehill completed 13-of-29 passes and finished with 186 yards for the Dolphins (5-7).
The Patriots' offense hardly mirrored a unit that had averaged 44 points per game in its past four wins at Miami and totaled 108 points over the previous two weeks.
New England registered only two first downs in the third quarter before finding traction late in the frame.
Brady opened the fourth by hooking up with Aaron Hernandez for a 31-yard pass. A face mask penalty moved the ball two yards closer to the Miami 2.
The Dolphins recorded two sacks around a Brady incompletion to bring on Stephen Gostkowski for a 32-yard field goal.
Miami answered on its next possession. Tannehill converted a 3rd-and-11 with a 22-yard pass to Brian Hartline and the completion was followed by a pass interference penalty that placed the ball at the New England 31.
Facing a 4th-and-1, Daniel Thomas moved the chains with a 9-yard run. However, linebacker Jerod Mayo sacked Tannehill on a delayed blitz on third down, and Dan Carpenter nailed a 33-yard field goal to trim New England's deficit to 20-13 with 8:28 remaining.
The Patriots then directed an impressive 16-play drive, during which they forced Miami to use all three of its timeouts and chewed up seven-plus minutes of the clock.
Ridley did much of the heavy lifting for New England, which didn't face a third down until the red zone.
Gostkowski kicked a short field goal to put the visitors up 10.
"That was our best drive of the day," Belichick said. "We needed it. We did a good job of blocking."
A pair of 28-yard completions set up a 42-yard Carpenter field goal with 31 seconds left. Brandon Lloyd recovered the onside kick to seal New England's sixth straight win.
"(The Patriots) made plays at the end of the game to secure the victory and they deserve to win," said Miami coach Joe Philbin.
Errors doomed Miami in the first half.
After going three-and-out to begin the game, Dolphins punter Brandon Fields was tackled at his own 12 after fumbling a low snap.
New England cashed in the turnover as Ridley bounced to the left side and scored a 2-yard touchdown.
Late in the first quarter, a low block penalty wiped out a pick-six for Miami safety Reshad Jones. It was Brady's first interception since a Week 6 loss at Seattle, and the turnover led to a 44-yard Carpenter field goal.
The Patriots' next drive was extended by a roughing the kicker penalty. If not for the infraction, it would have been a three-and-out for New England.
Given new life, Brady led the team down the field and Welker scored a 7-yard touchdown on slip screen.
Tannehill then lost the ball on a strip sack by defensive end Trevor Scott and Vince Wilfork recovered for the Patriots at the Miami 25.
Gostkowski, who missed from 49 yards in the first quarter, connected from 43 yards to put New England up 17-3.
Tannehill atoned for his mistake and his leaping touchdown closed the gap to seven at halftime.
Brady has thrown a TD pass in 44 consecutive games, the longest active streak. New Orleans' Drew Brees had his NFL-record streak of 54 games snapped in Thursday's loss to Atlanta ... New England has won 12 consecutive games in December and secured its 12th straight winning season ... Welker reached 1,000 yards for the fifth time in his career. He also broke Rice's NFL record for most games with 10-plus catches and 100-yards receiving, doing it for the 16th time ... Ridley had 71 yards on 19 carries and surpassed 1,000 yards for the season ... Hernandez caught eight passes for 97 yards ... Miami's Reggie Bush rushed 15 times for 64 yards.