Rapid Reaction: Pats 23, Dolphins 16

MIAMI -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots' 23-16 win over the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium:

DolphinsPatriotsWhat it means. The Patriots win the AFC East title for the 10th time in the past 12 years. This ensures a playoff berth and, at the least, a home playoff game in the wild-card round. Of course, the Patriots are looking for more than that, but at this time, they still look up at Houston and Baltimore in the overall AFC race.

The ugly wins count, too. After back-to-back blowouts, it was unrealistic to think the Patriots could keep up that pace. This wasn’t the team’s best effort -- although that final 16-play drive in the fourth quarter was one of its best of the season -- and some of the credit goes to the stingy Dolphins defense. But the ugly wins count, too. No need to read any more into it than that, as no NFL team is winning decisively every week.

Big Wes Welker day. Returning to face his former team, receiver Wes Welker continued his impressive season. He was the featured target early, with nine catches for 82 yards and a touchdown early in the second quarter. He went over 1,000 yards for the season, marking the fifth time he’s accomplished the feat. Welker finished with 12 receptions for 103 yards, marking his 17th career game with 10 or more receptions, which ties Jerry Rice for most in NFL history. He also set the NFL record for 10-plus catch games that included 100-plus receiving yards with 16.

Struggle for Brady. The Patriots struggled to get a running game going until the fourth quarter, which put more on quarterback Tom Brady, who lived on the edge for parts of the game as protection was spotty at times. Brady was intercepted in the first quarter on a beautiful play by Dolphins safety Reshad Jones (he had Aaron Hernandez well covered up the right sideline), which was Brady’s first interception since Oct. 14 in Seattle. Brady’s candidacy for MVP has generated some momentum in recent weeks, but this wasn’t one of his best outings. Brady was 24-of-40 for 238 yards.

Dolphins win battle at line of scrimmage. How did the Dolphins manage to hold the NFL’s highest-scoring offense in check? It started at the line of scrimmage, where the Dolphins established control in the running game to contribute in making the Patriots one-dimensional (until the Patriots' final drive). Then they brought the heat on Brady in passing situations. It’s tough to win when you don’t control the line of scrimmage, and that’s a big reason it was a struggle for the Patriots.

Defense does its part. The much-maligned Patriots defense had one of its better days of the season, opening the game with two three-and-outs and with end Trevor Scott -- filling in for the injured Chandler Jones and the suspended Jermaine Cunningham -- producing a strip sack that led to a field goal. In recent weeks, we’ve seen some more blitzes from the unit, and those produced some solid results in the game. On a day when the high-scoring Patriots offense was knocked off track for stretches of the action, the defense did its part.

Injuries to monitor. Starting right guard Dan Connolly left the game in the first quarter with a back injury and did not return. Connolly had been on the injury report with a back injury leading into the game. Also, receiver/punt returner Julian Edelman left the game in the second half with a foot injury and did not return. Receiver could be an area the Patriots need to address in terms of a roster addition.

What’s next. The Patriots return home to host the Houston Texans in a highly anticipated Dec. 10 clash on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Dolphins visit the 49ers on Sunday, Dec. 9.