FOXBORO — There was a point when the Patriots’ Sunday afternoon matchup with the Dolphins looked like it would be a close one. There was a time when Tom Brady and the offense looked inept. There was a moment when it looked like the Patriots wouldn’t clinch their sixth consecutive AFC East title.
Then the third quarter started.
Unlike in their season-opening loss, when New England crumbled, the only second-half collapse on Sunday came from the Miami Dolphins. After opening the second half with a one-point lead, the Patriots scored a franchise-record 24 points in the third quarter to roll over their division foes, 41-13, and capture yet another division crown.
The Pats become the fourth team since the merger to win at least six straight division titles, joining the Los Angeles Rams (7; 1973-79), the Pittsburgh Steelers (6; 1974-79), and the Minnesota Vikings (6; 1973-79).
The Patriots improve to 11-3 and have the two games left — against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills — to clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which they currently hold.
“We had some tough situations and we fought through them, as a team should,”Vince Wilfork said. “A good team should fight through some stuff and we did.”
The Patriots’ offense played uninspiring football in the first half, but was picked up by the team’s defense and special teams unit. Aside from the defense handing them the ball eight yards away from the end zone, Brady & Co. punted three times, turned the ball over once and ended the half by kneeling to a chorus of boos.
On the Dolphins’ first drive of the game, Jamie Collins blocked Caleb Sturgis’ 42-yard field-goal attempt and Kyle Arrington returned it for a touchdown. Later, with 7:59 left in the first half, Duron Harmonintercepted Ryan Tannehill and three plays later, Shane Vereen had a three-yard touchdown.
But just when it looked like the Patriots would walk into the half up 14-6, the Dolphins took charge.
The Pats got the ball back with 40 seconds left in the half. Instead of calling plays to try to get down the field, the Patriots ran three times to try to run out the clock. The plan backfired.
After Jarvis Landry returned Ryan Allen’s punt for 32 yards to the New England 32-yard line, Tannehill hit Mike Wallace for a 32-yard touchdown with five seconds left in the half. All of a sudden, the Pats lead was down to one, 14-13.
“I know we were all pretty pissed off at halftime,” Brady said. “It just wasn’t the way we — 25 plays on offense and terrible time of possession, terrible on third down, just didn’t do anything to help our team win.”
A different Patriots team emerged from the locker room. Over the final two quarters, the Pats shut out the Dolphins, 27-0.
“We felt, at one point, we let the game slip away,” Darrelle Revis said. “It got a little close. That’s when we readjusted at halftime and made the corrections we needed to make.”
Brady got things going right away. He started the first drive with a 34-yard strike to Rob Gronkowski. Then faced with a third and 11, Brady pump-faked and ran the ball 17 yards. LeGarrette Blount scored on the next play, at 11:09, to give the Pats a 21-13 lead.
“It’s just whatever it takes. I think that’s what matters,” Brady said. “I think all our guys responded the way we wanted to and it was good to go in there and finish them off like we did.”
On the next drive, Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 35-yard field goal to extend the Pats’ lead to 24-13 at 4:43. With the kick, Gostkowski became the Patriots’ all-time leading scorer with 1,160 points.
Things only got better for the Patriots from there. Patrick Chungintercepted Tannehill of the first play of the ensuing Miami drive. On the very next play, Brady hit Gronkowski for a 27-yard touchdown and the Pats held a 31-13 lead at 4:30 of the third quarter.
The Patriots kept rolling as what was once a close game turned into a blowout. On their next drive, which started at the Miami 47, New England needed only three plays to get another touchdown. This time Brady hitJulian Edelman for a 6-yard touchdown and the Pats led 38-13 with 1:33 left in the third.
Gostkowski finished off the Pats’ scoring in the fourth quarter, with a 36-yard field goal with 6:20 left in the game, giving New England a 41-13 lead.
“We just knew we could play better,” Gronkowski said. “We had a terrible first half as a whole. We just had to go out there execute and play together as an offense. The defense was doing a great job. We just had to go out there and make plays and we did in the second half.”
After the game, the players were all smiles as they donned divisional championship apparel — hats and T-shirts that said, “Patriots Run The East.”
“It’s good; good to be in this position and hopefully we can play our best football going forward,” Bill Belichick said. “That will be our goal.”