FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady actually threw an interception.
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 own territory and forcing them to punt. The Dolphins managed just two first downs on their first five possessions and gained less 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 they 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 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.
“We’ve been in those situations before where we’ve thrown up a lot of big numbers,” Belichick said, “or scored some points and then get to that (late) point in the game and go three-and-out.”
Avoiding that could be critical next Monday night when Houston visits.
The Texans (11-1) currently have the top seed in the AFC with the Baltimore Ravens second. The Patriots must pass one of them in their four remaining regular-season games to get a first-round bye.
So coordinator Matt Patricia knows his defense will have to keep playing well against Houston.
“You’re talking about a very balanced, very well-put-together offense,” he said.
If the game is close, Belichick hopes his team can come up with big plays down the stretch, just as it did in Miami.
“That’s what I’d like to see from an offense or a defense or any part of your team for that matter, to make the critical plays that you need to make to win the game,” he said. “That’s really what it’s all about, not a bunch of stats.”