Winning AFC East only the beginning for Patriots
F OXBOROUGH — The Patriots beat the Dolphins, 41-13, to win the AFC East Sunday. Praise the lord and pass out the hats and T-shirts. The Warhol/Tomato Can Division belongs to New England once again.
In other news Sunday, New York City was named one of America’s five biggest cities, Amazon is among the top booksellers in the nation, Willie Mays is one of the best 100 outfielders of all time, and “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II’’ are worthy of at least two stars out of four.
This is not meant to diminish what the 11-3 Patriots have accomplished this season. We all know that this Patriots team feels better than recent local playoff entries. The Patriots are playing like a Super Bowl team. But we also know that winning the AFC East is a mere formality. It’s like Navin R. Johnson (played by Steve Martin) from “The Jerk” bragging that his name has been published in the phone book.
“It’s always good to be able to walk up here after winning the AFC East championship,’’ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said at the podium after Sunday’s win. “Hopefully, we can play our best football going forward.’’
Indeed. And while winning your division is always sweet, winning the AFC East in 2014 is not exactly “Do you believe in miracles?” or “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!’’
Winning the AFC East in 2014 is like being named the world’s tallest short person. It’s like bragging about staying in a Holiday Inn Express. It’s like winning a trophy in Newton T-ball: You get applauded for merely showing up.
There is simply no competition in the AFC East. Except for a mini-run by the Jets, there has been no competition in the division since Belichick and Tom Brady got it going in the fall of 2001. The Patriots have won the division six straight seasons and in 11 of the last 12 years.
It’s not that the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets are always terrible. Sometimes they rise to the level of mediocrity. The Patriots almost always lose a division game or two on their way to the playoffs. Overall, the AFC certanly isn’t as bad as, say, this year’s NFC South, where the first-place team is 5-8-1 after Sunday’s games. To their credit, the Patriots’ record outside of division play is usually as good as, or better than, it is within the division. That’s a fact.
But it’s also a fact the Patriots are never really challenged in their division. At this hour, there’s simply no threat that another team is going to compete for the division title. This is not the Patriots’ fault, but in recent years it has artificially inflated local playoff expectations and failed to prepare them for the Big Boy Football of January.
The Dolphins have won exactly one playoff game in this century, and that was 14 years ago. The Bills, who had a big win at home Sunday against mighty Green Bay, have a chance to make the playoffs, where they have not competed since 1999. And the Jets are the Jets — a loser organization averaging double-digit losses over the last three seasons.
The quarterbacks in the AFC East this season are Brady and guys name Geno Smith, Kyle Orton, and Ryan Tannehill. It’s Paul McCartney . . . and Wings.
Sunday at Gillette had all the drama and tension of Red Sox-Astros in Fort Myers in early March. There was little traffic on Route 1 before the game and no energy in the stands once the Patriots kicked off. I don’t even think the Kraft high chairs were at maximum elevation. Les Moonves and Jim Nantz could have replaced the Krafts as seat-fillers.
New England’s play was equally passive in the first half. Brady was a mediocre 8 of 15 for 82 yards, and rare clock mismanagement enabled the Dolphins to cut the Patriots lead to 14-13 before intermission. Fans had to feel good because the Patriots had won 73 consecutive home games when leading at halftime. It was the same story Sunday. The Patriots broke this one open with a 24-0 third quarter.
Brady took his men across the goal line in less than four minutes after intermission. The exclamation point on the drive was a 17-yard “enough of this nonsense!” run by Brady. Brady was blasted by Dolphins defensive back Walt Aikens at the end of the play, but he bounced up yelling at Aikens.
“I was pretty pissed off at that time so I figured I wouldn’t slide,’’ said Brady. “I could have slid, but I wasn’t in the best of moods.’’
The rout was on. It was 38-13 less than 10 minutes later. Party time in Foxborough. Time to wait and watch if maybe the Broncos would lose to the Chargers and take the Patriots a step closer to clinching home field throughout the AFC playoffs, but the Broncos won, 22-10.
This is the way it’s going to be in Foxborough from now until the weekend of Jan. 10-11. That’s when some lucky wild-card weekend winner will come to Gillette for a second-round playoff game. After that we get the AFC Championship in Foxborough Jan. 18, then an expected trip to Glendale, Ariz. on Feb. 1, where Belichick and Brady will try to avenge their stunning defeat in the desert at the hands of the Giants in 2008.
Winning the Warhol is only the beginning.