By: Bob George/
December 02, 2012

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MIAMI -- Of the last 15 division losses for the Patriots, seven of them have come at the hands of the Miami Dolphins.

Say what you will about the Jets and what a natural rival they are, but over the years, you never feel comfortable when the Patriots play Miami, especially on the road. It is nice when the Patriots make their trip to Horatio Caine's town in December rather than in ghastly humid September. It is also possible that the Patriots can drop fourty-plus points on Miami at Sun Life Stadium (ask Wes Welker if he's ever had a good game in this building).

On Sunday, the Patriots had a chance to clinch the 2012 AFC East title, and did so, winning 23-16 over the Dolphins. But it took a last-second onside kick recovery by Brandon Lloyd to seal the win, following an incredible 16-play, 77-yard drive which ate up 7:18 of the clock and forced Miami to burn all three of their timeouts which essentially sealed the deal for the Division Champions. Miami played the Patriots tough all game long, especially on defense, but in the end the Patriots are still the far superior team on paper and had enough to hang on and win.

The division title is the 11th in the 13 years that Bill Belichick has coached the Patriots. They are now at 9-3 and still entrenched as the three seed in the conference. They will get the Houston Texans at home next week, the Texans currently sitting at the one seed, to see if there is any prayer that the Patriots can somehow get a playoff bye in 2012.

Thanks to a smothering secondary and a front seven which was able to generate a nice pass rush all game long against a patchwork Patriot offensive line, Tom Brady was never able to get fully comfortable and into a passing rhythm. The Patriots' offensive juggernaut was finally slowed down by the Miami defense. Brady was sacked four times and suffered his first interception in 203 pass attempts when Reshad Jones picked him off with a brilliant one-handed grab in the first quarter. Jones did run the pick back for a touchdown, but a low block call on Reggie Bush negated the touchdown and enabled the Patriots to hold the Dolphins to only a field goal.

Brady's passer rating was only 74.8 thanks to 24 of 40 for 238 yards, one touchdown and the one interception. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez had three drops each but good numbers otherwise, with Welker catching 12 passes for 103 yards and Hernandez grabbing 8 passes for 97 yards. But it was primarily these two guys doing all the work, as Lloyd had only one catch (the only time he was thrown to), Julian Edelman had only one catch, and the Dolphins were able to focus mostly on stopping the two big guys without being overly concerned with the others.

Until the final offensive possession for the Patriots, the Dolphins made pass defense easier by shutting down the Patriot running game. It wasn't until the final drive that the Patriots finally looked like they still had Corey Dillon. On that 16-play drive, Ridley carried the ball ten times for 45 yards and basically ended the game for the Patriots. Shane Vereen chipped in with a seven-yard run, and Brady completed two passes on the drive. Otherwise, with an obviously tired Dolphin defense powerless to stop it, the Patriots used the running game masterfully when they needed it the most.

Over the years, the Dolphins have always had a speed-based defense rather than brute strength. Four different Dolphins had sacks of Brady (Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, Paul Soliai, Jones). Jones tied for the team lead with ten tackles. Linebackers Keith Burnett and Karlos Dansby were all over the place with 19 combined tackles.

What basically won the game for the Patriots over the long haul was the inability of the Dolphin offense to consistently maintain any rhythm in their own right and take advantage of their stout defensive effort. Head coach Joe Philbin at one point called for a punt on fourth and one at midfield in the third quarter, and his defense did indeed hold thanks largely to a holding call on Daniel Fells. But his refusal to go for it was also an indictment of the Miami offense.

Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed only 13 of 29 passes for 186 yards and had a passer rating lower than Brady (66.2). His chief target was Brian Hartline, who hauled in five passes for 84 yards. But Davone Bess dropped two easy passes early on in the first quarter and was never a factor in the game. Other than a 20+-yard pass completion here and there scattered throughout the game, Tannehill never sustained any good sense of offensive efficiency. Dan Carpenter converted on three of three field goal attempts, but against the Patriots you need touchdowns and not field goals, and that helped swing the game in favor of the Patriots.

If the Patriots had a single star on defense, it was Vince Wilfork. He had a key fumble recovery in the second quarter after a strip sack, and did a nice job in clogging up the middle and preventing the Dolphins from gashing the Patriots up the middle on runs. Bush had 64 yards rushing and a 4.3 yard average, but never got the Dolphins into a zone where they could sit back and use the run to set up the pass.

The Patriots will now go through the toughest two-game home stretch in recent memory, playing Houston next Monday night and San Francisco the following Sunday night. Both teams can be scored on, though the 49ers have the more stout defense right now. The Patriots could win both games, but they could also lose both games. The Houston game is the much more important of the two, as it would bring the Patriots a game closer to the conference leader and give them the tiebreaker if they finish with the same number of wins at season's end.

But the Patriots can now relax in the knowledge that they will at least be in the playoffs, and that still another division championship is theirs. At Miami, against a division foe that plays them tougher than all the others, the Patriots can be happy but at the same time wary of all the things the Dolphins did well against them with even better defenses looming on the horizon.

The Dolphins love to blare Jimmy Buffett after scoring plays, singing about "Fins to the left, fins to the right". That was certainly the case on Sunday, but the Patriots were still able to be the only catch in town.

And the only winners, to boot.