Monday, March 10, 2014
By Howard Ulman, The Associated Press
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Tom Brady actually threw an interception.
WHO: Patriots (9-3) vs. Houston Texans (11-1)
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Gillette Stadium
Don't worry Patriots fans, your team finally has a decent defense and big-play special teams to step up when the NFL's best offense falters.
On a day when Brady was picked off for the first time in six games and New England gained a season-low 321 yards, the once-suspect defense delivered. It had its second stingiest game of the year, allowing just 277 yards, in a 23-16 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
That clinched the ninth AFC East title in 10 years for the Patriots (9-3) and extended their winning streak to six games.
"When (the) offense struggles, it's a chance for us to showcase how special we are on the defensive end," tackle Vince Wilfork said.
"Offense is OK to have a bad game here and there. They've done so much for us and one thing we want to do around here is we always want to play as a team."
They've been doing that quite well lately.
In their last three games, the Patriots have scored 11 touchdowns on offense, three on defense and two on special teams.
They've cut down on the long completions by opposing quarterbacks.
They've improved over the last two games from allowing the fifth most yards in the NFL to seventh.
Their turnover differential has gotten much better with 17 takeaways and just three giveaways during their six-game surge.
"We've had some better results recently, statistically," Coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "We've continued to win."
If the defensive players improve the communication among themselves and their execution the longer they're together, he said, "then we'll play better next week than we played this week."
Even when the defense doesn't score, it's helped the offense by stopping opponents deep in their territory and forcing them to punt. The Dolphins managed just two first downs on their first five possessions and gained fewer than 10 yards on six of their first nine series.
"(Sunday) was a great example of a team win," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "The defense really has made a lot of plays for us all season long, set us up with great field position with turnovers, and given us opportunities to get the ball in plus-field position a number of times."
But McDaniels isn't used to seeing his offense sputter the way it did for much of the game in Miami. It had gained more than 440 yards in six of its previous eight games. Brady had thrown 20 touchdowns and two interceptions in that stretch.
But the Patriots didn't score a touchdown after the first six minutes of the second quarter against Miami.
"We didn't convert as often as we like," Brady said.
But they did that when they had a chance to close out the game. Leading 20-13, the Patriots got the ball with 8:28 left and didn't give it back until just 1:10 remained. That 16-play, 77-yard drive lasted 7:18 and led to a field goal that made it a two-possession game.
That mattered a lot more to Belichick than the poor production earlier.
"We don't go into any game thinking, 'It's going to be this way or it's going to be that way. This is going to be a 50-49 game or it's going to be a 3-2 game or that kind of thing,"' he said. "Ultimately, at the end, it comes down to being able to make the plays you need to make to win the game."
They did that Sunday.
THE PATS signed wide receiver Donte Stallworth to add veteran depth to their receiving corps in the wake of injuries to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski.
On March 19, Stallworth signed with the Patriots before the team released him on Aug. 27.