The New England Patriots have looked flawless in their past two games. Their win over the Miami Dolphins had more blemishes than a teenager's face during puberty. However, the offense put enough make-up on it to cover those warts and now, they're on their way to the dance—in New England's case, the playoffs.
It wasn't quite the scoring siesta we have seen from New England over the previous four weeks, when they scored a combined 198 points. The Patriots barely mustered 23, two touchdowns short of the 37 points-per-game average they had posted through the first 11 games of the year.
With that, they entertained memories of their late-game offensive struggles from earlier in the season.
They scored six points in the fourth quarter, with three of those points coming on a field goal following a 16-play, 77-yard drive that carved 7:18 off the clock and forced Miami to use all three of their time-outs. What we saw in the fourth quarter against Miami was hardly a fireworks display, but compared to what we had seen earlier this year, it looked like San Diego on the 4th of July.
It was more sustained success than we've seen from them in a late-game scenario this year. a combined six points in the fourth quarter in losses to the Seahawks and the Ravens, while giving up a combined 24 points in those two games.
This was a huge change from what we saw in those games.
It's not just that they successfully closed out a game on offense for a change, but also about how they did it. Running back Stevan Ridley had 10 carries for 46 yards on the aforementioned drive, becoming the 12th running back in Patriots history to cross the 1,000-yard plateau for a season.
The Patriots also didn't shy away from the running game, despite early struggles running the ball (eight carries, 10 yards in the first half).
It also bodes well for New England that they pulled out this performance so short-handed on offense; they were without two starters in tight end Rob Gronkowski and left guard Logan Mankins, and they could be even more short-handed this coming week, with wide receiver Julian Edelman leaving the game with an ankle injury and later leaving the stadium on crutches.
Wide receiver Wes Welker stepped up big-time with 12 receptions for 103 yards, and will likely need to come up big once again next week if Edelman isn't ready for action.
With that in mind, the Patriots found that fourth-quarter stride at just the right time; they'll probably need a little more late-game magic from their offense in the upcoming two games.
Against two teams that sit near the top of their respective conferences, those games will be a barometer not just for the offense, but for the team's ability to make a deep run in the playoffs.
The Patriots are far from the nerd of the class, getting to the dance isn't enough on its own. Will the Patriots be crowned Homecoming King? That's the more important question.
The Patriots started working their way toward that answer with their late-game performance against the Dolphins.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.
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