- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: The Patriots are the 2012 AFC East champions. New England improved to 9-3 and clinched the division Sunday by beating Miami (5-7). The Dolphins were able to keep the game close but didn’t have enough offensive firepower to pull off the upset. Miami's slim playoff chances were virtually ended with this loss.
Patriots' offense stalls: Miami's defense found a way to slow New England's top-rated offense for most of the game. The Patriots entered as the highest-scoring team in the NFL. They scored 40 points or more four times this season but were held to just 23 points on Sunday. Miami made New England one-dimensional. The Dolphins stuffed the running game for the most part and came after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Miami sacked Brady four times, which stalled some drives. It was a one-possession game halfway through the fourth quarter, but New England put together a beautiful 16-play drive to clinch the game.
Long sidelined: Starting left tackle Jake Long suffered a triceps injury in the first quarter and didn’t return. He was replaced by rookie Jonathan Martin. Long has had a history of injuries the past two seasons and it has greatly impacted his play. If this injury is significant, it makes Miami’s decision even more difficult in the offseason. Long will be the team’s biggest and most expensive free agent.
Welker on tear: One player the Dolphins could not contain was Patriots Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker. The Patriots clearly had a mismatch in the slot against Miami’s thin group of cornerbacks, and Welker took advantage. He had 12 receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown. Welker had 10 of his receptions in the first half.
Special-teams issues: Miami’s special teams cost the Dolphins 14 important points. First, Miami punter Brandon Fields botched a punt after the team's first possession to give New England the ball on the 12-yard line. The Patriots scored a touchdown soon after. Then, Miami cornerback Jimmy Wilson ran into the punter on fourth down to provide another opportunity for New England. That led to the Patriots’ second touchdown in the first half. That early swing was enough to create separation for the Patriots.
What’s next: The Patriots have arguably their biggest game of the regular season next week against the Houston Texans (11-1) on "Monday Night Football." It will be a battle of two Super Bowl contenders who are vying for a first-round bye and home-field advantage. The Dolphins will travel to play the San Francisco 49ers.