Patriots-Dolphins Live: Rob Gronkowski’s Touchdown Catch Highlights Win as Patriots Lock Down First-Round Bye in Shutout

Tom Brady

Final, Patriots 28-0: Everything fell into place for the Patriots today, and now they’re on their way to a first-round bye in the playoffs.

The Colts took down the Texans with a 28-16 win earlier in the day, and the Pats took care of business against the Dolphins to secure a 28-0 win and that ever-coveted bye.

Brady was stellar for much of the night, completing 22 of 36 for 284 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Ridley contributed a pair of scores on his own, as well as 74 yards on the ground, and helped steady the New England offense.

The big story of the day, though, was the return of Rob Gronkowski. Gronk caught two passes for 42 yards and a touchdown, showing that he was perfectly healthy even while wearing a protective wrap on his injured left arm.

The defense was stellar, too, recording seven sacks, which marked a new season high for this group. Justin Francis had a career day, getting three sacks of his own, and his emergence could be even bigger as Rob Ninkovich left earlier in the game with a hip injury.

There are still plenty of questions left lingering heading into the playoffs, but fortunately for the Patriots they will have two weeks to fix and prepare for them.

Keep it locked with NESN.com and  be sure to keep up with Luke Hughes on Twitter @LukeFHughes for all your Patriots postgame info.

Fourth Quarter, 2:00, Patriots 28-0: The Patriots’ passing game got plenty of attention in this one as Brady threw for 277 yards and a pair of scores, but the running game was just as effective.

Ridley carried the ball 20 times for 74 yards and a pair of scores, Vereen got the ball eight times for 38 yards, Woodhead crushed it on the ground and through the air and even Brandon Bolden got back in on the action.

It’s good to see Bolden back in the fold after failing to link back in since serving his four-game suspension. He likely won’t be relied upon in the postseason, but his ability to jump in if necessary is huge. He’s a reliable back and a hard runner, which could help if the Patriots run into trouble in the playoffs.

Fourth Quarter, 9:27, Patriots 28-0: Gronk managed just one catch through the first 40-plus minutes, but that one was the biggest of his return.

Brady tossed a sweet 27-yard touchdown pass to Gronk over the middle, and suddenly the big fella is a big part of this Patriots offense once again.

Playing Gronk today was risky, but also very important to getting this offense back on track after two consecutive subpar performances. Gronk is a major piece in this offensive puzzle, and he should only continue to get better as the playoffs come around.

Fourth Quarter, 11:47, Patriots 21-0: This game is turning into a snoozer.

Neither team has scored in almost 20 minutes, and there’s far too many quickly stalled drives. The Patriots ended the first half looking like they were on pace for 50 points, and suddenly there’s barely half of that.

We need some excitement to get the crowd riled up here again inside Gillette.

End Third Quarter, Patriots 21-0: There weren’t many fireworks in the third quarter, as no points were thrown up on the scoreboard, but there was plenty of excitement.

The Dolphins had two potential scoring opportunities, but blew one with a turnover and saw the other overturned. The Patriots may not reach the 40-point plateau after all, but they might also shutout the Dolphins altogether.

A first-round bye is well within reach here, let’s see if they grab it.

Third Quarter, 4:13, Patriots 21-0: The Dolphins just threw away — err fumbled away — their best chance to get back into this game.

After finally finding some rhythm on offense, Tannehill missed the handoff to Reggie Bush down near the goal line and the Patriots are back looking to pour on to this lead.

Chandler Jones was all sorts of amped up after that turnover, and the defensive line seems to be really making a stand in the absence of Nink. This is an entire team effort so far and this sort of win is exactly the type you want going into the playoffs.

Third Quarter, 11:18, Patriots 21-0: Trevor Scott absolutely owns the Dolphins. That is becoming more and more apparent.

Scott, who has seen more action with Ninkovich’s injury, now has three sacks on the season and all three have come against the Dolphins.

The Patriots’ pass rush hasn’t seen any drop off without Nink on the field, but he certainly helps out on defense especially with Brandon Spikes being limited at linebacker. Thank goodness for Scott, though, he’s been great over the past few weeks.

Halftime, Patriots 21-0: Tom Brady got the Patriots off to a fast start early in this one, and they haven’t let their foot off the gas.

With a shot at that first-round bye still a good possibility, the Patriots have stepped up their effort on both sides of the ball and built an early 21-0 lead.

Brady is 14 of 22 for 193 yards and a touchdown so far, while Ridley has carried the ball 10 times for just 30 yards, but has a pair of touchdowns to show for it.

Over on defense, Justin Francis and Brandon Deaderick have led the pass rush, but Rob Ninkovich’s loss to a hip injury could prove devastating. He’s listed as questionable to return, but that’s the same status they gave Julian Edelman a few weeks ago and now he’s on IR.

There’s plenty of game left to be played, but I still wouldn’t be surprised to see the Patriots throw a 40 spot up on the scoreboard.

Second Quarter, 1:00, Patriots 21-0: Stevan Ridley has shared carries with Vereen and Woodhead so far tonight, but when it comes to the goal line you know who’s getting the rock.

Ridley scores his second touchdown of the night, and the Patriots now hold a 21-0 lead on the Dolphins.

Second Quarter, 2:04, Patriots 14-0: You think the Dolphins were focusing in on Danny Woodhead this week? Well, it certainly doesn’t look like it.

Woodhead has already had five touches for 75 yards, including three catches for 63 yards, and is just tearing apart this Dolphins defense.

With so much attention on Welker, Hernandez and Gronk, I guess it’s no great surprise that Woodhead would be overlooked — not to mention his diminutive frame. But seriously, this guy deserves more attention than the Dolphins are giving him today. He’s open every time.

Second Quarter, 6:24, Patriots 14-0: The Patriots’ defense held Tannehill and the Dolphins, and Miami was unable to convert on the field goal try. But the bigger story might be Rob Ninkovich’s injury.

Nink was down for quite a while down on the field and needed assistance coming to the sidelines, which is  a very bad sign.

Ninkovich has been the Patriots’ best pass rusher for a few games now and was consistently getting after Tannehill today. The situation definitely bears watching and could be a big problem if the injury causes him to miss action beyond this week.

Second Quarter, 10:26, Patriots 14-0: They’re back it.

The Patriots jumped on the Dolphins’ defense early, and a nice steady drive just saw them double their lead with a one-yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley.

After a lot of passing early, the Patriots haven’t gone back to the ground against Miami on the last two drives, though, and it seems to be paying off.

Ridley has 24 yards and a touchdown, Shane Vereen has 24 yards and Woodhead has played a key role in the passing game with two grabs for 49 yards. Talk about using these running backs to the utmost.

End First Quarter, Patriots 7-0: Tom Brady jumped the Patriots’ offense out to some quick success, but they only managed seven points on the scoreboard in that first quarter.

Brady is 9 of 14 for 140 yards and a touchdown so far, but the stout play of the defense against rookie Ryan Tannehill has been the real story in this one.

Steve Gregory came up with a huge interception that prompted the Patriots’ first score, and solid play from McCourty and Arrington on the outside has helped.

Also, the return of the Gronk is taking center stage as he’s played about half of the snaps, so far, and even hauled in a big 19-yard catch. Gronk’s return has been a big sticking point all week, but he looks good so far, and that bodes very well for the Patriots in their pursuit of a first-round bye.

First Quarter, 6:40, Patriots 7-0: Tom Brady was having a tough time getting the Patriots on the scoreboard on the first two drives, but the defense gave the offense a little punch in the arm to get things going.

Steve Gregory made a big interception, and Brady seemed fired up to be back on the field with a touchdown pass to Wes Welker two plays later.

The big story of the drive, though, was a big catch  by Gronk across the middle. Gronk’s health is clearly a big issue, and seeing him make that catch and turn to run was a definite positive to come out of the early going here against the Dolphins.

First Quarter, 11:15: Gronk got the start and the Patriots jumped out to a quick start of their own, but they end up without any points to show for a solid opening series.

Brady looked strong on the first drive of the day, and Belichick showed some urgency in going for it on fourth and six from inside the 25-yard line, but ultimately it just didn’t work out.

The Patriots are at least showing that they aren’t to be played with today, as they look ready to get this win and clinch that bye.

4:24 p.m.: Now there’s something to play for. This Patriots game just turned into an even more meaningful affair.

So, with plenty to play for, Tom Brady and the Patriots will be even more motivated for this one, and that means that the underlying storylines are even bigger now. That being said, let’s jump into our weekly Three and Out and see what we should keep an eye on today.

1. Return of the Gronk – Mark Morrison knew what he was doing when he released “Return of the Mack” back in 1996, but now we have the return of the Gronk here at Gillette. How much will he play, and how effective will he be with that massive wrap on his left arm? We’ll see, but his impact could be huge.

2. Secondary depth – Without Dennard and Cole, the Patriots are left with some serious depth issues in the secondary. Expect Devin McCourty to play some more cornerback, much like last week, and Kyle Arrington should see some added time on the outside as well. But who will fill in back there in sub packages?

3. Plenty to Play for -- There’s a lot on the line, and the Patriots usually play their best in some of the biggest moments. So, this one means a great deal and that could indicate a big showing on both sides of the ball.

3:58 p.m.: The Colts are on the verge of knocking off the Texans, which means the Patriots have their chance at that coveted first-round bye in the playoffs.

Gronk is back, and with so much on the line, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play a lot more than expected. Bill Belichick knows how much the bye would mean to this team’s Super Bowl hopes, and he’s ready to pull out all the stops to ensure that happens.

Plus, if the Patriots do get the bye that just allows for another week to get Gronk and the rest of these guys rested and healthy for the playoff run.

3:27 p.m.: All the talk this week has surrounded the Patriots’ chances at a first-round bye in the playoffs. Well, the Colts, of all teams, might be giving them some hope yet.

The Colts are locked in a tight battle with the Houston Texans, which seems to have Patriots fans all riled up inside Gillette.

Andrew Luck led the Colts out to a 14-6 lead at the half, and Indy’s keeping up their strong play into the second half. After falling behind 16-14 to start the third quarter, running back Deji Karim returned a kickoff 101 yards — completely untouched — for a touchdown and returned the lead back to Indy.

The game is being played on both big screens inside the stadium and Patriots’ fans are going wild with excitement on just about every play. There’s still some game left to be played, but at least we know the fans are well aware of the impact this outcome could have.

3:05 p.m.: Rob Gronkowski is officially a go for the Patriots today, but a few other key players won’t be taking the field at Gillette today.

Alfonzo Dennard headlines that list, as the cornerback is still bothered by lingering hamstring and knee injuries that kept him out against the Jaguars, too.

As for the Dolphins, wide receiver Davone Bess won’t be slicing up this Patriots defense, as he’s been ruled out as well. That could mean bad things for rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, especially in this cold weather.

Take a peek at the inactives for both teams below.

Patriots:
OL Markus Zusevics,
CB Alfonzo Dennard,
S Nate Ebner,
DL Jake Bequette,
OL Nick McDonald,
WR Kamar Aiken,
DB Marquice Cole

Dolphins:
QB Pat Devlin,
WR Davone Bess,
CB Nolan Carroll,
LB Josh Kaddu,
OT Patrick Brown,
TE Kyle Miller,
DT Kheeston Randall

2:28 p.m.: Rob Gronkowski is ready to make his triumphant return to the field against the Dolphins today, but questions about the big tight end’s health still linger.

Gronkowski is just six weeks removed from breaking his forearm, and while his activity in practice has increased recently there’s still thought that he might be better served taking more time to heal.

This game against the Dolphins definitely means something to the Patriots, with New England’s playoff seeding potentially on the line, but then again the playoffs are right around the corner.

Gronk’s health will be key to the Patriots’ chances at a Super Bowl repeat, and risking his health for one game does cause some concern. I understand the need for game reps ahead of the playoffs, but I’m also not sure it’s worth the risk of further injury.

1:57 p.m.: Welcome to cold and snowy Gillette Stadium. There’s plenty of snow still being cleaned out of the seats here inside Gillette, but there shouldn’t be any remnants left by game time.

The conditions aren’t too pretty, but then again that could benefit Brady and the offense as the Dolphins aren’t used to these frigid temperatures.

Anyhow, as we get going here inside the press box, take a peek at the field ahead of kick off.

Gillette

10:45 a.m.: While the Patriots do have business to take care of, they’re relatively safe compared to the rest of the league. In the NFC, several of the six playoff sports are still to be determined. Follow the progress on that front in our NFL playoff picture live blog.

A few individuals are also hoping to put their names in the record books today. We’ll be keeping track of all of those pursuits in our NFL record chase live blog.

All in all, it’s a great day to be an NFL fan.

10:30 a.m. ET: There is still plenty left to be uncovered in the AFC playoff picture, but the Patriots can at least help their own cause with a win over the Dolphins.

After an ugly win down in Jacksonville last Sunday, Tom Brady and the Patriots will host another Florida foe this weekend as Miami pays a visit to Gillette. If the last game between these two is any indication, then Sunday’s showdown will be no cakewalk for Brady and the Patriots’ potent offense.

The Patriots snuck out of South Florida with a 23-16 win just four short weeks ago. Brady struggled as much as anyone that day, completing just 24 of 40 passes with one touchdown and an interception. Coming off a similar performance against the Jaguars last week (24 of 41 with two touchdowns and two interceptions), Brady is primed for a breakout in an important game for the Pats’ playoff seeding.

One big boost for Brady would be the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has missed five straight games while recovering from forearm surgery but is back practicing with the team. With Gronk back out on the field, Brady would have yet another big-play option and his most reliable red zone target (10 touchdowns in 10 games this season) back in the mix.

As for the defense, Aqib Talib, who was limited to just eight snaps last week because of a hip injury, has made great strides this week and appears ready for a return to the starting lineup. Talib’s return would allow Devin McCourty to move back to safety and give the Patriots some much-needed depth in the secondary against rookie Ryan Tannehill.

Kickoff got pushed back to 4:25 p.m., thanks to the NFL’s flex scheduling, so be sure to keep it locked here for all your Patriots news, notes and analysis throughout the day.

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