Jake Grove's (left) Miami Dolphins chances for the playoffs are slim, while Randy Moss (right) and the Patriots clinched the AFC East and Jerricho Cotchery's Jets made a push for the postseason.FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This doesn't appear to be the mightiest New England Patriots team to enter the playoffs under Bill Belichick.
The Patriots don't seem elite anymore. They've shown some flaws. They've been beaten by the best and have struggled against the pedestrian.
"Now is the time of year where the depth of the team really comes into play and we start to understand what the stakes are and what we're fighting for," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who raised his record in December to 18-2.
The Patriots can take a deep breath and cool their cleats if they choose in next week's regular-season finale against the Houston Texans in Reliant Stadium. They do have the possibility of earning the No. 3 seed with a victory in Houston, so there is a little something to play for.
One week after Jets coach Rex Ryan bemoaned his team's "deceased" playoff hopes, they crashed the AFC East standings. The Jets went on the road to knock off the previously unbeaten Indianapolis Colts, 29-15, and put themselves into position to get into the tournament. The Bengals have clinched the AFC North already. They might want to rest their stars.
The Miami Dolphins ruined any prayer they had for a win-and-get-in situation. They gagged away a wondrous chance to navigate their way to the front of the wild-card race at home Sunday against those Texans. For a second straight game, the Dolphins faltered for the first 30 minutes, rallied late and lost.
A season after winning the AFC East on a tiebreaker over New England, Miami's struggles illustrate how difficult it is to maintain year-to-year consistency. That's what makes New England's decade all the more remarkable.
No AFC East team has finished with a better record than the Patriots in any year since 2000, Belichick's first as head coach.
"This year, we did more than the other teams in the AFC East," Belichick said. "We're proud of that."
New England's performance was reminiscent of the glory years in that it was thoroughly dominant. The Patriots easily could have scored another two touchdowns. Laurence Maroney fumbled at the goal line on their first possession, and they showed mercy by running into the center of the line to kill the clock on the Jaguars' 5-yard line on their final drive.
Are the Jaguars an extraordinary team? Not at all, but the victory was significant. It gives the Patriots the option to rest several achy starters next week and puts them in the right frame of mind for the postseason.
They'd lost three out of four games in November and early December, an aberration. Now they're on a three-game win streak. The first two came against the Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills, victories that could be dismissed as easy opposition.
But the Jaguars entered Sunday with playoff aspirations. They had something to play for Sunday.
Still, the Patriots pulverized their will with four first-half touchdowns.
Brady was automatic. He threw only three incompletions on 26 attempts. One was dropped. Another was an out-of-bounds throwaway. He threw for 267 yards, surpassing the 4,000-yard barrier for the season, and four touchdowns. Brady finished with a 149.0 passer rating.
Wes Welker's 13 receptions gave him 122 for the season, a franchise record. He accomplished this despite missing two games with an injury.
Maroney didn't see the field again after he fumbled, but the Patriots have a healthy stable of running backs for the first time in more than two months. Former Jaguar Fred Taylor played for the first time since he had ankle surgery, and Sammy Morris, who missed four games, ran for a season-high 95 yards and a touchdown on a dozen carries.
Defensively, the Patriots were sharp even without nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Free safety James Sanders made a game-changing tackle on fourth-and-1 from the Jaguars' own 35-yard line on their first possession. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather ended the next possession with an interception on the Patriots' 17-yard line.
New England's last three opponents have averaged nine points.
"It hasn't always been perfect," Belichick said of his defense. "But I think that our preparation, our communication, our understanding and just playing together and playing situational football has improved, which it should. We've had over 100 practices and 15 regular-season games. Those are the kinds of things you get out of it."
What the Patriots did Sunday doesn't come close to erasing the memories of what occurred in the domes of Indianapolis and New Orleans.
Those losses will resonate into the postseason. They failed against elite competition on the road, and if the Patriots want to make a deep run, they'll need to play elite competition on the road.
"We knew what we had to do in this room, which was taking care of business on a day-to-day basis," Welker said in front of his locker stall. "That's what we've been doing, continuing to work and just keep on grinding it out."
For a decade, it's what the Patriots have best at.