December 31, 2012

PATRIOTS BEAT: New England earns a reward

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — And now we wait.

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HEY, ALL RIGHT: New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) celebrates his touchdown catch with Deion Branch during the first quarter Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.

AP

The Houston Texans collapsed at the end of the season and the New England Patriots benefitted most.

Houston's 28-16 loss to Indianapolis early Sunday – the Texans' third loss in four games – combined with the Patriots 28-0 pounding of the Miami Dolphins later in the day allowed New England to move into the No.2 spot in the AFC and get a bye in next weekend's wild-card round.

The Patriots won't play again until 4:30 p.m. Jan. 1 against either Houston, Baltimore or Indianapolis – three teams they have already played this season.

It's a reward for a team that came together in the second half of the season to soothe the nerves of its fidgety fans.

The Patriots were 5-3 at the midpoint of the season, 2-3 at the very beginning, and no one knew quite what to expect.

But under Bill Belichick, the Patriots got better each week – even if it didn't always show in the stats – and earned the right to have a week off. And that's very important.

Not only will it allow nicked up stars like tight end Rob Gronkowski to heal, and possibly defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who left with a hip injury on Sunday, but it will allow the Patriots to take a good look at themselves.

As impressive as they have been in the second half of the season, the players feel they can still get better.

Defensive back Devin McCourty said the team will use the bye week to “fix some things we need to fix.''

While he wouldn't get more specific, he talked about how it will allow the Patriots to take a hard look at the things they do.

“It gives you a chance to really focus on whatever you need to focus on,'' he said. “Especially a bye week like this, where we won't know who we're playing. It gives us a a chance to really focus on ourselves and try to improve in that week.

“I think we have to do a good job this week of just trying to improve and get better. This time of year, it's all about  going out and playing your best in each one of those (playoff) games because there's no game after that if you don't play well.''

Belichick didn't seem all that impressed with the bye. “When we have to play, we'll play,'' he said.

But he was very impressed with his team's play on Sunday. The offense was once again in stride. The defense sacked rookie Ryan Tannehill seven times and forced two more turnovers.

“The guys did a really good job,'' he said. “We had a good week of practice. They were obviously ready to go today. We got good contributions from all three phases of the game … I don't want to single anybody out. There were so many guys that contributed.''

And then he added, “We'll see how it goes here going forward. Hopefully this will be a good game that we can step off from and keep working to improve and get better in our next outing.''

The Patriots knew, going into the game, that if they beat the Dolphins they would have a bye. The Houston-Indianapolis game had gone final. But they said that didn't matter.

“We had to go out and beat Miami,'' said safety Steve Gregory, whose interception set up the first touchdown. “That was what our main focus was all week and even today. But we did know that a win guaranteed us a bye so maybe for certain guys it did a little something extra.

“But we were just out here ready to play Miami and go out and win a football game.''

It was, and it will be, said cornerback Kyle Arrington, “Business as usual around here.''

The players may get a day off, or two, but this week needs to be used correctly: to heal, to refocus, to improve. Even though, as Tom Brady pointed out, the Patriots have won 10 of their last 11 games, they know they have to get better.

“Going into the playoffs,'' said McCourty, “we won't be the only team going to the next level. I think everyone knows once you go into the playoffs, teams step it up a notch. So we're going to have to do our part and try to step it up and match teams going into the playoffs.
“If we keep improving and getting better, we'll be able to get there.''

 

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