Published December 31, 2012
| Sports Network
Foxboro, MA – Stevan Ridley rushed for two touchdowns and the New England Patriots secured a first-round bye in the playoffs with a 28-0 whitewash of the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
New England entered the final week of the regular season as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, but a loss by the Houston Texas to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday allowed the Patriots to steal one of the conference's coveted top two spots.
The convincing shutout gave the Patriots (12-4) the second seed behind the Denver Broncos and capped their perfect run through the AFC East.
Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass for the 48th straight game and in doing so moved past Johnny Unitas for the second longest streak in NFL history. Brady completed 22-of-36 passes for 284 yards and two scores, one to his favorite target in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who returned from a five-game absence.
Justin Francis highlighted the defensive side of the Patriots' first shutout in over three years with three of the club's seven sacks.
"I thought it was a real good performance by our team today," said New England head coach Bill Belichick. "They were obviously ready to go today. We got good contributions from all three phases of the game and had a lot of guys step up and make plays."
Miami's Ryan Tannehill ended his rookie campaign with a disappointing game. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft finished 20-of-35 through the air for 235 yards with an interception and a lost a fumble.
Miami (7-9) had won two in a row coming in, but ended their fourth straight losing season on a sour note.
Windy conditions forced the Patriots to pass up a long field goal try on their opening possession, and Brady's pass to Wes Welker fell incomplete to turn the ball over on downs at the Miami 24-yard line.
The Dolphins went backwards and were forced to punt, and on their next drive Tannehill threw into double coverage and was picked off by safety Steve Gregory, who returned the interception 13 yards to the Dolphins' 28.
"[Gregory] made a good play on it," said Tannehill of the interception. "[A Patriots' defender] was in my face and it was the safety that made a break on it. Just a bad decision, I can't through the ball there."
After Brady and Gronkowski hooked up for 19 yards, Welker was left open over the middle for an easy 9-yard score.
A 50-yard punt and a penalty pinned the Patriots' at their own 8-yard line later in the opening quarter, but a balanced attack helped the hosts pad their lead. Ridley capped the 13-play march, which lasted nearly 7 1/2 minutes, on a 1-yard plunge over the goal line on fourth down.
The Dolphins then found themselves in the same situation the Patriots had on their first touch, with the weather playing a role in a fourth-down decision. But Miami opted to attempt the field goal, and Nate Kaeding's 41-yard try was blown from the right goal post to well outside the left upright.
New England took over at their own 31 with 6:24 remaining in the half, and Ridley capped another time-consuming drive that featured three third-down conversions with a 2-yard touchdown run at the one-minute mark.
Miami reached the red zone for the first time late in the third quarter, but a bad exchange between Tannehill and Reggie Bush resulted in a fumble recovered by Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower at the Patriots' 1-yard line.
Later in the third, Dolphins safety Chris Clemons appeared to return an interception for a touchdown, but replay overturned the score when it showed the ball hit the ground.
Tannehill threw an incomplete pass on 4th-and-7 near midfield early in the fourth quarter, and New England took advantage of the generous field position. Welker kept the drive moving with a 7-yard grab on 4th-and-4 from the Miami 30, and on the next play, Gronkowski, who had surgery to repair a broken forearm in mid-November, went unguarded down the seam for his 11th touchdown of the season.
"It was nice to get him back in the flow of things," said Brady of Gronkowski. "We used everybody, so it was exciting to kind of have everybody out there at once for the first time all season. We'll use the bye and hopefully come back strong in a couple weeks."
This was the Patriots' first shutout since a 59-0 win over the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 18, 2009 and their first shutout of the Dolphins since a 12-0 win on Dec. 7, 2003 ... The only other time the Patriots ran the table in the division came during the perfect regular season in 2007 ... New England has swept the season series three straight years ... Brady is 10-1 as a starter versus Miami at home ... Ridley totaled 74 yards and 20 carries and became the fifth player in franchise history to reach 1,200 in season ... Welker caught eight passes for 94 yards ... Tannehill finished with 12 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions ... Bush totaled just 26 yards on eight carries, falling 14 yards shy of a second straight 1,000-yard season ... Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano took a viscous hit to the head by Gregory in the third quarter and did not return.