FOXBOROUGH — Resistance is futile for the other teams in the AFC East, and quite often over the last 17 seasons futility has marked those teams’ attempts at execution against the Patriots. The Patriots taking the AFC East is as close to a fait accompli as there is in football. Death, taxes, and the Patriots winning a division title if Tom Brady remains upright and intact are three ineluctable aspects of existence.
The division is full of foils and devoid of challengers for the lords of Fort Foxborough, a lock to extend their NFL record with a ninth straight division title. The Patriots predictably prevailed against an overmatched and underwhelming AFC East opponent on Sunday, dismantling and demoralizing the Miami Dolphins, 35-17, at Gillette Stadium in a victory that wasn’t even as close as the three touchdown margin would indicate.
The 9-2 Patriots have now won seven straight games and are pulling away from the AFC East field like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
It’s to the point where the Patriots are so dominant in the division that they’re even embarrassing the NFL schedule-makers in the process. It’s obvious that the NFL, in a desperate attempt to inject some sense of drama into the annual ennui in the AFC East, backloaded New England’s divisional games. Since none of the other teams in the AFC East can make the division competitive, the NFL decided to try to manipulate it into being undecided late in the season, scheduling five of the Patriots’ six division games in the final six weeks of the season, starting with Sunday’s contest against Miami.
Nice try, NFL, but that backfired as well. The Patriots were more vulnerable earlier in the season when they started 2-2 and were facilitating more travel through the air than an air traffic controller. Now, the Patriots are playing their best football of the season, and the rest of the division is either fading or fighting through self-inflicted wounds and/or ill-advised coaching decisions.
At one point, the Dolphins were 4-2. The Patriots sent them to their fifth straight loss, a stretch during which the Dolphins have been outscored, 177-82. The once 5-2 Buffalo Bills, who host the Patriots next week, beat Kansas City on Sunday to snap a three-game losing streak in which Buffalo had allowed 135 points.
The J-E-T-S can’t even T-A-N-K correctly, unable to be good enough at being intentionally bad. The Jets (4-7) dropped a 35-27 decision to the Carolina Panthers Sunday, surrendering a fumble return for a touchdown and a punt return score in a span of 2 minutes and 11 seconds in the fourth quarter to facilitate their fifth loss in six games. It was textbook AFC Least football, but their losing is coming too late to get the No. 1 pick.
These teams aren’t capable of pushing the Patriots. They’re culpable in their own demise with execution errors and coaching miscalculations. Save for the days of Vociferous Rex Ryan, this has been the state of the division since 2001.
“You can’t make mistakes, and you can’t turn the ball over against these guys,” said Miami receiver Jarvis Landry. “Truthfully, no matter who you play in the NFL if they capitalize on your turnovers and your penalties it’s going to be hard to win those games. This is one of those teams where you can’t get behind, and you can’t turn the ball over.”
That’s the familiar lament of a Patriots division opponent leaving Foxborough drenched in failure. Miami got duped on a fake punt to set up the Patriots’ first touchdown, tossed a costly interception that denied them points before the half — one of three Dolphins turnovers on the day — and extended Patriots’ drives with untimely penalties.
Since 2001, the Patriots are now 78-22 in 100 regular-season games against division opponents. There have only been two seasons the Patriots didn’t claim the division crown — 2002, Brady’s first full season as a starter, and 2008, when Brady tore his ACL in the season opener and was out for the season. The Dolphins took the asterisk AFC East title that year.
The 2008 season was also the last time the Dolphins won a game at Gillette. That was the infamous “Wildcat” offense game. Miami had no such offensive artifice up its sleeve this time. Its first touchdown was gift-wrapped by the Patriots.
The Patriots were rolling along with a 14-0 lead, clowning the Dolphins with the fake punt and real dominance on offense. Then calamity struck in the form of a miscommunication between backup center Ted Karras and Brady, who finished a ho-hum 18 of 28 for 227 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. On second and 4 from the Patriots’ 38, Karras shotgun-snapped the ball to an unwitting and unaware Brady. It was scooped up by Dolphins safety Reshad Jones at the 14 and returned for a touchdown.
It was the Patriots doing their best impression of the self-defeating ineptitude that plagues their AFC East “competition.” It was an homage of sorts to their divisional brethren, a show of sympathy and empathy.
Not to be outdone, Miami refused to accept the Patriots’ invitation back into the game. Down 21-10, the Dolphins drove to the Patriots’ 15 with 16 seconds left in the half. But Miami backup QB Matt Moore, filling in for the injured Jay Cutler, lofted a lazy pass into double coverage that was easily picked off by Stephon Gilmore, who had time to check his e-mail before the ball landed in his arms in the end zone.
The Patriots are always going to stand in the way for the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets in the division until each of them can get out of their own way.
“They’re a smart football team. They limit their mistakes. They limit their penalties. They don’t beat themselves,” said Moore, the victim of a season-high seven Patriots’ sacks. “They make it hard for their opponent, whoever it is, and that’s why they have a record the way they do.”
That Patriots’ record now includes 17 consecutive winning seasons, the most for any team since the 1970 merger. Locally, this is a testament to the Patriots metronomic excellence, around the rest of the AFC East it’s a reminder that the Patriots’ reign of terror continues.
Despite the NFL’s best efforts, the only game in the final handful for the Patriots that truly matters is the one that’s outside of the division — the showdown between the Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Dec. 17. That game could determine home-field advantage in the AFC.
What typifies the AFC East? The Patriots competing with each other for interceptions. Duron Harmon and Stephon Gilmore went to the ground in a tug-of-war over a Moore lollipop late in the fourth quarter. Harmon won.
It was a microcosm of the Patriots’ AFC East existence. The most serious competition they face comes from themselves.