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Patriots win, get first-round bye

The SportsXchange

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots began Sunday knowing they needed to win and also get some outside help to grab one of the two top AFC seeds and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

They got both.

Now, they get a week of rest before hosting a divisional playoff game as they bid to return to the Super Bowl.

The defending-champion Giants, who beat New England in last year's Super Bowl, were eliminated in the NFC Sunday, but the Patriots recorded their 12th win of the season with a 28-0 hammering of the Dolphins.

The victory -- on a blustery evening (16 degrees with the wind chill at kickoff) that followed a Saturday night snowstorm -- came hours after the Texans lost to the Colts to drop out of the bye picture and into the third seed. The New England victory came while the Broncos were shellacking the Chiefs, leaving Denver as No. 1 and the Patriots No. 2.

"It was kind of a late Christmas present, so we accept," quarterback Tom Brady said of the shutout win and playoff bye.

Brady threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns in New England's 10th win in its last 11 games.

Brady said the players knew the Texans had lost when they came in from pre-game warmups, adding, "Coach (Bill) Belichick just said, 'Look, the only people that can improve our position are us, so regardless of what anyone else does, we have to win.' And that's what we did."

Stevan Ridley scored on two short touchdown runs as the Patriots (12-4) built a 21-0 halftime lead and cruised home. Brady hit Wes Welker (eight catches) and returning tight end Rob Gronkowski for touchdowns.

Gronkowski, who missed five games with a broken left arm, returned on a limited basis, catching two passes, the second a 23-yarder for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

"It's nice to get him back in the flow of things," Brady said.

Ridley ran for 74 yards on 20 carries as the Patriots rebounded from a ho-hum performance in a win at Jacksonville (after a loss to the 49ers) to enter the playoffs on a high note. This was their first shutout since Oct. 18, 2009.

"That's always awesome, when you walk away with a goose egg on the scoreboard. That's very satisfying," said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who had one of New England's season-high seven sacks, which was also the most allowed by Miami this season.

Three of the sacks were by tackle Justin Francis, the first sacks of his NFL career.

The Dolphins, who finished 7-9 after a two-game winning streak ended, had chances to score. But Armon Binns dropped what likely would have been a touchdown pass, Reggie Bush fumbled near the New England goal-line and Nate Kaeding missed a 41-yard field goal. Safety Chris Clemens also ran some 60 yards with a loose ball for a touchdown, but the play was overturned and ruled an incompletion.

Ryan Tannehill, the first rookie ever to start all 16 games for Miami, was 20-for-35 for 235 yards and an interception.

"We have a lot of work to do obviously," said first-year Miami coach Joe Philbin. "I think we made progress in areas, but we have a ton of work to do. We've got to get started on that as soon as possible."

Asked about coming out of the season with a positive outlook, he said, "Absolutely. In a lot of ways, certainly. But right this minute, it doesn't feel that way."

Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who has had a strong year for New England, was helped off the field after suffering a hip injury in the first half. For Miami, tight end Sal Fasano and linebacker Kevin Burnett both left in the second half for concussion evaluations.

NOTES: Before the game, the Patriots honored play-by-play announcer Gil Santos, who is retiring after the season. He worked his 743rd game Sunday. His long-time broadcast partner, Gino Cappelletti, who retired after last season, was on hand and worked the first series of the game with Santos in the booth. Owner Robert Kraft announced Santos would join Cappelletti in the club's Hall of Fame. "Memorable moments" of the pair were played on the video board throughout the game. ... Brady threw a TD pass for the 48th straight game (three full seasons), passing Johnny Unitas for second place on the all-time list. Drew Brees leads with 54, a streak that ended this season. Brady is the first NFL quarterback to throw at least one TD in every game for three straight seasons. ... Miami's Reggie Bush came in needing 40 yards for his second straight 1,000-yard season but had 28, 20 of them on the final play of the game. He is not signed for next season after two strong years in Miami. ... New England's first first down was its 417th of the season, an NFL record. ... Welker caught a pass for the 110th straight game. ... New England defensive end Jermaine Cunningham returned from a four-game league substance suspension. ... Brady, who passed former teammate Drew Bledsoe for ninth place on the NFL's all-time yardage list, has won 12 games in a season seven times. Peyton Manning is the all-time leader with nine. Brady also passed Vinny Testaverde for eighth place on the all-time completion list. ... Belichick notched his 11th 12-win season, second to Don Shula's 13. ... The Patriots swept the Dolphins in the season series for the second straight year, the eighth time overall. Miami has swept New England 13 times. ... Ridley became the fifth Patriot to rush for 1,200 yards in a season. ... Miami was blanked for the first time since Nov. 18, 2010. ... The fans tossed snow up into the air after every touchdown.
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