MIAMI - On a sizzling September day at Pro Player Stadium that was so hot many Dolphins fans didn’t show, the Patriots may have watched their season melt into oblivion. With its 10-3 loss to Miami yesterday, New England’s chance of rebounding from an 0-4 start, its worst beginning since the 5-11 1993 season, appears minuscule.
For the fourth straight game, Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe had a chance to tie or win it on the last series, but couldn’t pull it off. He’s asking for a few good Patriots to join him in battling back and not giving up.
“I’ll be there with him,” said wide receiver Terry Glenn, who caught five passes for 65 yards, including a 28-yarder from Bledsoe on a fourth and 1 that put the Patriots in position to get the tying score late in the game. “We’re going to come in here and keep practicing and keep getting it right,” Glenn said. “It’s one or two plays we don’t make every game. That’s not a disaster. If we can get it cranking on all cylinders, we can start winning games. The big thing now is to win the next game.”
There were two crucial mistakes, both in the second quarter: Kevin Faulk’s fumble at the Dolphin 3, and blown coverage on a touchdown pass from Jay Fiedler to Bert Emanuel for 53 yards.
Yet with 1:08 left in the game and the ball at the Miami 5, on fourth and 2, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called a fade to Eric Bjornson in the hope the 6-foot-3-inch tight end would be able to jump and take the ball from a safety or a cornerback. In this case, he drew cornerback Patrick Surtain. It was the perfect situation, but with less-than-perfect results.
Bjornson was trying desperately to get Surtain’s hands off him. The Patriots felt it was interference, or at least defensive holding. As soon as Bledsoe released the ball, he yelled, “Pass interference.” There was no flag. Bledsoe darted toward the official. The flag stayed in the official’s pocket.
“Surtain got his hands on me one-on-one, and he disrupted me enough to win,” said Bjornson. “If it was pass interference it wasn’t good enough to be called. I should have gotten better release from the line. He got his hands on me quicker than I could get his hands off me.”
Bledsoe had Glenn open on the other side, but even Glenn said, “The right play was called. Charlie figured I’d get double-covered in the slot, which I had been all game.”
Early on, Fiedler had found Oronde Gadsden on a 44-yard hookup after Fiedler had stepped up and away from pressure and led Gadsden, who made a breakaway move on Otis Smith, for the completion. Credit Tebucky Jones with a touchdown-saving tackle.
But on the next play Fiedler was pressured by defensive end Bobby Hamilton, who had him by the left arm. He tried to flip the ball forward, but it landed in defensive tackle Henry Thomas’s arms. The 35-year-old, despite the heat and humidity, ran it 16 yards to the 35.
The Patriots then mounted a very effective 12-play drive to the 22, but it resulted in a field goal, not a touchdown. Bledsoe completed a 17-yard pass to Chris Calloway to get into Dolphins territory at the 47. He also made a big 11-yard throw to Glenn, who made an acrobatic catch on a ball thrown behind him, then avoided two tacklers to get the first down at the 23. But a 1-yard run by Tony Carter and two incompletions brought on Adam Vinatieri, who got a clean hold by Lee Johnson on the dirt infield and knuckled the ball over the crossbar with 14:43 remaining in the second.
Then came a defensive lapse: Kato Serwanga was beaten on the bomb on third and 4 from Fiedler to Emanuel with 11:30 remaining in the second. Serwanga was a half-step behind, and as the ball arrived, Emanuel got a bit of separation, then stumbled in for the score. Serwanga was supposed to get help from Tony George, but the second-year safety said the corners and safeties were in different coverages on the play. George had also barely gotten onto the field after Lawyer Milloy, on the previous play, had been inadvertently hit by Patriots defensive lineman Brandon Mitchell on the helmet and was dazed.
As often as the Patriots practice in the red zone, they continue to stumble there.
“We practice red zone stuff so much. It looks good in practice, but in the game . . .” said Glenn.
With New England trailing, 7-3, Ty Law intercepted a Fiedler pass at the Dolphins’ 45 after receiver Ed Perry fell on the seam between the infield and outfield. Law returned the ball 32 yards to the Dolphins’ 19.
The Patriots tried to run the ball. They handed off to Faulk four times, then made a first down with an 8-yard pass from Bledsoe to Troy Brown, before the unthinkable happened. On an inside handoff to Faulk, linebacker Brian Walker drilled Faulk, forcing the ball loose. The Dolphins’ Zach Thomas recovered it at the 4.
“It was a bad mistake,” said Faulk. “The most basic thing is to hold on to the ball, no matter how hard you get hit. I didn’t do that. That really cost us.”
The Patriots went into the two-minute offense late in the half, but questionable play-calling stalled their drive at the Dolphins’ 38. On fourth and 2, the Patriots tried to fool the Dolphins with a running play. It fooled no one as Faulk was hammered for a 3-yard loss. This gave the Dolphins the ball and enough time to set up Olindo Mare’s 43-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining, giving them a 10-3 halftime lead.
There is a lot of football left. But it could be a lot of frustrating football.
“I expect us to keep fighting,” said Milloy. “I’m not concentrating on the big picture right now. I’m focusing on winning next week.”