MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – They started the regular season winning at the buzzer in Arizona with a backup quarterback while their Hall of Famer was exiled on a trumped-up charge.
They ended the season beating down a playoff-bound team in Miami on a day when they could have maybe coasted just a little.
In between, they pitched a shutout and won with their third-string quarterback, won in Denver on a short week in frigid cold, withstood a tumultuous midseason trade, bounced back from a narrow loss in prime time, had a defense that took slings and arrows all year but got better and better and better as the regular season went on and, almost forgot, didn’t blink when they lost their Hall-of-Fame-level tight end.
PATRIOTS 35, DOLPHINS 14
- Patriots will host Raiders, Texans or Dolphins in Divisional Round
- For Bennett, Patriots' winning ways is 'like the first time having sex'
- Floyd makes big impact in Patriots finale, calls jarring block 'the extra stuff'
- Blount on Suh: 'He's always been a dirty player
- Tom E. Curran's preview review
- First impressions: Edelman helps Pats nail down No. 1 seed
- Tom E. Curran's Best and Worst
- Pats face tougher schedule in 2017
They finished 14-2. They were one of only seven teams in the league to post a winning record on the road. No team had fewer than two losses on the road except the Patriots, who went 8-0. They allowed fewer points than any team in the NFL. Their lead running back scored 18 touchdowns. Their quarterbacks threw 32 touchdowns and two interceptions.
The 2016 New England Patriots have been relentless.
An example? The three hours spent on the tarmac Saturday in Providence as their plane was being worked on was credited by Tom Brady as being a terrific opportunity.
“We were sitting on the runway for a long time,” Brady said Sunday after leading the Patriots to a 35-14 thrashing of the Dolphins, their 11th win in his 12 starts. “Usually Saturday night is an important night for our team and for our offense to get together and review everything. We just didn’t have a chance to do it since we got in so late . . . A lot of people took advantage of the time and got some extra rest on the plane, we watched a lot of film. When you get six hours on the plane as opposed to three, you can double up your film time, so I think that’s an advantage. You just take what you get and try to make the most of it.”
Tears of rage well when the guy in front of me at the convenience store starts digging for exact change. And the only thing he’s keeping me from is probably a nap.
These people just aren’t built the same as most.
There was no ambiguity in how they approached the season finale. They were healthy enough to roll everyone out there and chase their 14th win. So they rolled everyone out there and chased their 14th win. No “How much longer?” conversation about when the starters would be put on ice – which is the talk we engaged in all week. They’d told us weeks ago about how they intended to finish the year.
“Like I said the last couple weeks, we’ve talked a lot about last season and the way that ended,” said Brady. "I think it’s just important to keep that foot on the gas pedal.”
Bill Belichick probably isn’t going to get a huge chunk of Coach of the Year votes. He probably deserves them. But even having his team prepared to weather the frivolous suspension of Brady, shrug off the loss of Gronk, plus having the nerve to deal Jamie Collins while knowing his team would be able to deal with it and still go 14-2, will just draw shrugs. That’s what he does. That’s what they do.
But this isn’t normal fare, this kind of tunnel-vision that Belichick is able to impart. A hurricane could blow the roof off the house and Patriots players and coaches would delight in the fact the place looked brighter.
“I (talked about mental toughness) earlier this year when Jamie got traded and different things happened and, as a team, we just talk about if it doesn’t end in winning, whatever it is, if it’s not pushing us closer to our goal of winning that game, we just have to throw it out the window,” said Devin McCourty, who made a big hit on a wideout for the second time in three weeks to force a fumble that helped seal a win. “We have to block it out, focus on what it takes to win.
"Coming here yesterday and sitting on the plane, everyone was wondering what was going on; but we get here, ‘Meetings are cancelled tonight, we’re going to meet tomorrow? All right, we move on. We meet tomorrow, wake up, meet, all right, let’s find a way to win this game.’ Everything in the game is like that. You get out there, you get off to a good start, they make a couple plays, let’s see what we have to do to win. This team is very mentally tough and it shows. We just have to keep pushing forward. Now, it’s win or go home, so we really have to lock in on our mental toughness and try to play our best football.”
They enjoy the grind. Truly. They don’t put a hashtag in front of it and play “Look at me!” games with their offseason workouts. We’ve heard “Trust the process” and “Respect the process” but the Patriots are rare in that they come to worship the process. Not to a man, every minute of every day. Not wholly. But enough so that they don’t seem to ever want to shirk it out of love, fear, pride or a combination of all three.
Normally, I’d break this quote up for readability’s sake. Throw in a line or two to give you readers a breather. But I won’t. These 356 words from Brady say it all
“You’ve got to put the work in every week,” he said. “Just because you win this last weekend doesn’t mean anything two weeks from now. We’ll be watching next week and some team is going to win and will look really good and you’ll go, ‘Oh my God, we have to play those guys?’ You’ve just got to go put the work in. You’ve got to put the same effort in every single day.
“There is an urgency that really starts with Coach Belichick,” Brady continued. “He walks in every day and says, ‘This is a big day. We’ve got to accomplish a lot of things today. You know it’s boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. These are the keys to win. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.’ The guys have to embrace those. You’ve got to understand what your role is. You’ve got to go out there on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and practice that in whatever conditions are out there on the practice field. Then you go in, you talk about it, you try to correct things and then Friday, at the end of the week, you put together the plan. Saturday, you talk about it and review it. It’s just a marathon.
“I think this team showed a lot of mental toughness that they can do it week-in and week-out at a consistent level,” Brady summarized. “That’s what it takes. Any team can go 8-8. You win one, you lose one, you win one. You lose and you’re like, ‘We’ve got to get it going.’ I think our coaches do such a great job of getting us going when we win. To say forget about last week, we’ve got to move on. That game’s over and we’ve got to learn from it and we’ve got to take the things that really helped us win and we’ve got to build on those things. These are the types of things we did that we’re going to lose. We’ve got to learn from those. It’s good to not have to learn from the losses. 14-2 is a tough thing to do. I think it’s very cool for this team to accomplish that.”