Patriots get shot in the arm

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A week ago at this time, the New England Patriots didn't feel good about themselves and their quarterback called them out for not competing.

All is better now, much better in fact, which is the way it sometimes goes on the weekly roller coaster that is the National Football League.

Sunday was nearly perfect for the Patriots. They blanked the Miami Dolphins 28-0 at frigid, wind-whipped Gillette Stadium, earned a first-round playoff bye that previously was thought out of reach, and, in the process, improved their overall self-esteem.

"It's definitely a good way to enter the postseason, with all three phases [offense, defense, special teams] playing well," said team captain Matthew Slater, one of the club's seven Pro Bowl selections. "I think that was important for us to finish with some confidence and finish on a good note and feel good about our football team heading into the postseason."

It was precisely how the Patriots didn't feel last Sunday in Jacksonville after a 23-16 victory that players were treating like a loss. Quarterback Tom Brady lit into players after that game, imploring them to fight harder. The words obviously were well-received and acted upon as the Patriots took the fight to their chilled visitors from South Florida from the start on Sunday.

And before that happened, the one team the Patriots needed help from to earn a first-round bye, the fading Houston Texans, cooperated with a loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

"Kind of a late Christmas present, so we accept," Brady said. The Patriots' next game already is locked in for Sunday, Jan. 13 at 4:30 p.m. ET.

It was part of what made the day unique in recent Patriots history, as it's not often that New England players, or their fans, pull for the rival Colts. But when the gates opened Sunday at Gillette Stadium and fans watched the game on the scoreboard during warmups, there were cheers every time something went well for the Colts. Players were watching, too.

Tight end Aaron Hernandez had his eye on the game from the training room. Cornerback Kyle Arrington said he checked the ESPN "ScoreCenter" application on his phone every 10 minutes or so. Then, after pregame warmups, players learned that the Colts had won, and now it was up to them to take care of their business.

That seemed to energize the players and probably also changed how Belichick managed parts of his roster. With a coveted bye to play for, the regulars played from wire to wire as the Patriots finished with a 12-4 record.

"It's in the back of your mind a bit at that point -- you win and you definitely get the bye. So probably a little bit," safety Steve Gregory said of the early result providing a spark. Gregory's first-quarter interception was the turning point of the game, as it led to the first touchdown and the Patriots -- who set the NFL record for most first downs in a season (444) -- never relented.

The Patriots have been the No. 2 seed four times previously, including the 2001 and 2004 seasons in which they went on to win the Super Bowl. They also were the second-seeded team in 1978 and 1996.

Players echoed the importance of the bye week for self-improvement, in addition to buying more time for those with injuries to get healthy. Starting left cornerback Aqib Talib, a vital player on defense who dressed but didn't play a snap against the Dolphins, is one of several players who fall into that category. Ditto for fellow starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee, did not play).

"You usually only get that opportunity once a season with your bye week," starting center Ryan Wendell said. "Getting another one is really important. They wouldn't give the first and second seeds byes if those teams didn't want them."

But two weeks might not be enough for starting left defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who left Sunday's win with a hip injury in the second quarter. He had trouble putting pressure on his leg as he was helped off the field, and wasn't spotted in the locker room after the game.

That was one of the only parts of the day that was a downer for the Patriots, who posted their first shutout since a 59-0 pasting of the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 18, 2009 and recorded seven quarterback sacks.

The 28-year-old Ninkovich has become a vital part of the team's defense, seldom leaving the field (85 percent playing time entering Sunday) while posting a team-high eight sacks, five forced fumbles and often setting a strong edge in the running game. He remained on the turf following an incomplete pass on a third-and-10 play midway through the second quarter.

"When it looked like he wasn't getting up, I thought it might be pretty bad because normally he just pops right back up. He's a tough kid," said fellow defensive end Trevor Scott, who would be one of a few players, along with Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis and Jake Bequette, to be called upon to fill the void if Ninkovich is out. "Still don't know what it is, but just have to get him rested up and ready for the playoffs."

Losing Ninkovich for any stretch of time would be a blow, but the Patriots have absorbed similar losses this season, such as tight end Rob Gronkowski (he returned for the first time Sunday since breaking his left forearm Nov. 18, playing 24 of 80 snaps), left guard Logan Mankins and starting right defensive end Jones, among others.

No team is as healthy as it desires at this time of year, which is why it helps the Patriots that they now only have to win two games, instead of three, to reach the Super Bowl. They'll be resting while four other AFC playoff teams are banging away on each other next weekend --Bengals at Texans on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET), and Colts at Ravens on Sunday (1 p.m. ET).

"It's definitely huge, but we can't let up just because we get some rest," said Scott, who is in the playoffs for the first time in his career after spending his first four seasons with the Oakland Raiders. "We still have to have good mental and physical practices. This is what you work so hard for all offseason, all during camp -- it's a long season and it feels like it's just Day 1. It's starting now."

Players return to work Monday to start the journey, uplifted by earning a bye but knowing it means little if they don't capitalize on it.

"After 17 weeks plus the preseason, it feels great knowing we're in the playoffs," Arrington said, "and we have a great opportunity to go on a run."