On Sunday afternoon the New England Patriots clinched the AFC East title with a 23-16 win over the Miami Dolphins. Wrapping up the division with three weeks still remaining in the regular season is big for the team that has been dealt key injuries recently. Now they have time to rest their injured and hopefully have them ready for the postseason.
One of the main stories this season for the Patriots has been injuries to key personnel. While the defense has suffered a similar amount of injuries as they have had in the past couple years, the league leading offense has suffered several injuries to Pro Bowlers. Sunday’s win will make sure the Patriots have the ability to rest those players so they can return completely healthy for the playoffs.
In week two tight end Aaron Hernandez was injured in the team’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals. After missing three weeks, Hernandez returned but was clearly not fully healthy. The quick return caused a setback and Hernandez miss the next couple games before returning seemingly healthy against the New York Jets last Thursday night. This early crown allows the Patriots to avoid the same fate for other stars.
In the Patriots win over the Indianapolis Colts a couple of weeks ago All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski was hurt during an extra point. The injury required that he have surgery on his arm keeping him out for at least three weeks. While the Patriots can handle teams like the Jets and Dolphins without their Pro Bowler, his presence will be imperative in the postseason.
Another player who has suffered multiple injuries this season is wide receiver Julian Edelman. Edelman suffered a hand injury against the Baltimore Ravens earlier this season which caused him to miss three games. After returning to full health and having a breakout performance against the Colts, Edelman suffered from concussion-like symptoms following the Jets game last Thursday night. He was able to play Sunday in Miami but suffered another injury during the game, this time to his foot.
The Patriots offensive line lost two key players this offseason when tackle Matt Light retired and guard Brian Waters refused to report to training camp. That left the defending AFC champions with only two returning starters in Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer. Both Mankins and Vollmer have missed significant time this season.
Despite the depth and success of the Patriots offense, these losses have been worrisome for the Patriots and their fans. The Patriots defense has been questionable for the last couple seasons and for most of 2012 it’s been no different. When a team with aspirations like the Patriots is perceived as one-dimensional, they must remain healthy and play at a high level to reach their goals. Clinching the division with three weeks to spare should help them to achieve full health for the playoffs.
Going into the 2012 season the Patriots were expected to repeat as AFC champions and possibly win their fourth Super Bowl. But early struggles temporarily derailed the team until they found their footing. Since their 3-3 start, the Patriots have rolled off six straight wins improving to 9-3 and currently sit with the third best record in the conference. While they’re still playing for a top seed in the AFC, it’s more important to rest some of those who have been injured recently. Sunday’s win clinching the AFC East is what has allowed them that luxury.