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With first shutout in 3 years, once shaky Patriots defense turns stingy going into playoffs

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    New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)The Associated Press

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    Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline (82) catches a pass in front of New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) during the second quarter of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)The Associated Press

A New England Patriots defense that gave up so many big plays is finally making them.

Just in time.

The Patriots began the regular season with an influx of rookies they hoped could improve one of the worst teams at allowing yards last season. They ended it with their first shutout in three years and a boost of confidence heading into the playoffs.

Defensive back Devin McCourty said the most important thing now is improving the defense even more after it blanked the Miami Dolphins 28-0 on Sunday.

The Patriots (12-4) have a first-round bye and will play at home Jan. 13 against the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens or Indianapolis Colts. Players are scheduled to practice Wednesday and Thursday before taking three days off.

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