What a difference one week makes.
After New England's lackluster performance against Jacksonville last Sunday (where they labored for their 11th win of the season to go with four losses), and two weeks after being defeated by playoff-bound San Francisco, it was not a sure bet the team was going to get a first round bye in the upcoming postseason. Both Houston and Denver had better records and were in good position to earn byes in being the #1 and #2 seeds in the AFC, respectively, with the Pats positioned to be no better than the #3 seed.
But the Patriots showed up both offensively and defensively this afternoon at home in Foxborough, MA to blow out (28-0) a Miami team that had previously won three of its last five games. The Pats shut out an opponent for the first time in three years and sacked a quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) for a season-high seven times.
And with the Houston Texans suddenly struggling offensively, losing badly to Minnesota last week and to Indianapolis today, both Houston and New England finish the 16-game regular season with identical 12-4 records. The Pats beat the Texans a few weeks ago, thereby winning the tiebreaker and thus a coveted first round bye. The unstoppable Denver Broncos (13-3) earned the #1 seed and the other first round bye in defeating Kansas City today, for its 11th win in a row, Now, Houston has to play in the Wild Card round next week as the #3 seed (against #6 seed Cincinnati). This scenario seemed very unlikely just a week or two ago.
Besides the playoff standings being finalized in the AFC, the big news out of this game for the Pats is that star TE Rob Gronkowski saw action for the first time in six weeks, which he spent healing from a forearm injury. He saw sporadic action as a blocker, but also caught a couple of passes from Tom Brady, one for 19 yards that set up a TD to Wes Welker in the first half, and then for a TD in the fourth quarter (his 11th on the season). Brady's TD throw to Welker also extended his league-leading TD pass streak to 48 games.
The only unfortunate news is that breakout defensive star Rob Ninkovich left the game with a hip injury. How serious the injury is has yet to be determined, but with the bye, he and the Pats have two weeks to prepare for their Divisional round matchup at home against either Houston or the winner of the Indianapolis-Baltimore game next weekend.