FOXBOROUGH - Roman Phifer watched as teammates poured a Gatorade bucket of ice water over Bill Belichick’s head near the conclusion of yesterday’s 20-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins. He then joined his teammates for an impromptu run around the stadium to thank fans for their support.
“This was,” said Phifer, pausing to collect himself, “the most important game of my life. It’s the first time in 11 years that I’ll be going to the playoffs. I can’t tell you what that means to me. I can’t tell you how I feel right now because it’s a feeling I don’t think I’ve experienced.”
While the AFC East-leading Patriots (10-5) haven’t officially qualified for the playoffs, it would take a miracle for New England to miss the postseason. In fact, even if the Patriots lose to Carolina, the Seattle Seahawks, who have three games remaining, would have to win all three and outscore their final two conference opponents (San Diego and Kansas City) by more than 58 points to keep the Patriots out.
“What a coaching job Bill has done,” said Phifer, a Jets castoff and former Ram who was wooed in the offseason by Belichick and player personnel director Scott Pioli. “You appreciate it from the outside, but in here it’s amazing to watch week after week.”
The Patriots not only overtook the Dolphins, they sent a message to the league that they’re capable of beating any team.
They received outstanding performances from Tebucky Jones, whose jarring tackles forced two tide-turning fumbles. They were able to run the ball at will, a reversal of the teams’ Oct. 7 meeting in Miami when Lamar Smith blitzed the New England defense for 144 yards. This time, another Smith, New England’s Antowain, ran for a career-high 156 yards on 26 carries and a touchdown. Tom Brady threw for 108 yards and snapped a three-game touchdown drought with a 23-yard scoring toss to Patrick Pass.
The offensive line was dominant, opening holes for Smith and taking Jason Taylor, the Dolphins’ vaunted pass rusher, out of the game.
“It really helped us that we got the ground game going, because that meant we didn’t have to pass protect as much,” said left tackle Matt Light.
The defense hadn’t allowed a touchdown in 14 quarters before Jay Fiedler connected with Jeff Ogden with a 10-yard pass with 1:28 remaining. The Dolphins attempted an onside kick, which happens to be Olindo Mare’s specialty, and the high kick fell into the arms of Fred Coleman, just as a truck named David Bowens drilled the Patriot receiver in the midsection.
But Coleman held the ball.
“I figure I’m going to get hit anyway so I’d might as well catch the ball,” said Coleman. “And he hit me good. He hit me right on the ball, so I had to readjust it as I came down.”
The Dolphins had many opportunities to come back from a 20-3 halftime deficit, but were foiled at every turn.
The first came on their first drive of the second half. Faced with fourth and 1 at the New England 21-yard line, the Dolphins went to Smith, who tried to go over the top on the right side. Smith, however, was stuffed by Matt Stevens and Tedy Bruschi, giving the Patriots possession after the biggest stop of the game.
Certainly there was questionable play-calling by Miami offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. The Patriots had loaded up the box on fourth down, but instead of throwing to a tight end, the Dolphins decided to try and outmuscle the Patriots. But that hasn’t happened very often this year, and it didn’t happen this time.
Ironically, the same thing had happened to the Patriots on the first drive of the game. Brady led the team from its 38 to the Miami 10. Faced with fourth and 1, Belichick eschewed a gimme field goal and Antowain Smith was stuffed.
“That’s one I wish we could have taken back,” said Belichick. “Taylor knocked down [Marc] Edwards and took us out of the play.”
The play could have shifted momentum to the Dolphins, but it wound up doing just the opposite.
An early turnover by the Dolphins changed the flow of the game in New England’s favor.
After stopping the Patriots on their second possession, the Dolphins set up shop at their 33. Fiedler found Jed Weaver for a 19-yard gain but Weaver lost the ball when Jones delivered a tremendous hit. Otis Smith recovered the fumble - Miami’s 33d turnover of the season. The Dolphins challenged the ruling but to no avail.
On the ensuing drive, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis thought it was time to “go in for the kill” as he likes to say. In a season of trick plays, Weis saved the best for the Dolphins.
Kevin Faulk, a former high school quarterback, took a direct snap, rolled right, and spotted a wide-open Brady on the left. The ball floated for what seemed like an eternity, but the Dolphins could do nothing but watch. Brady hauled it in and tiptoed out of bounds at the 20 after a 23-yard gain.
“We practice that play at least once a week,” said Faulk. “Charlie told us that he might go with it before the game, but I was shocked to hear it called. Coming out of my hand it was like a jump shot. I knew it was there. I just told Tom, just catch the ball.”
The shellshocked Dolphins were playing like a football version of the “Bad News Bears.”
Smith, who had rushed for 100 yards by the 7:32 mark of the second quarter, romped for 18 yards to the 2, and then behind 6-foot-6-inch, 305-pound makeshift fullback Richard Seymour, Smith broke the scoreless tie with his 12th rushing touchdown of the season.
He was far from through.
On the Patriots’ next drive, Smith ran for 44 yards to the Dolphins 31 on a nifty cutback run. Center Damien Woody sprung Smith with a devastating block on Dolphins tackle machine Zach Thomas. On that run, he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Three plays later, Brady found Pass alone on the left side, and the fullback jaunted untouched to the end zone.
The Patriots seemed to be playing by themselves at times. With 4:31 remaining in the first half, Adam Vinatieri made the first of two field goals - a 32-yarder capping a 10-play, 53-yard drive that featured interference and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the Dolphins.
Vinatieri popped up the ensuing kickoff but as usual, it came up roses for the Patriots. Tommy Hendricks fielded the kick and fumbled and Coleman was there to recover.
The Patriots took over at the Dolphins 42, moved to the 5 mostly behind Smith, and settled for Vinatieri’s 22-yard field goal, making it 20-0.
By this time Miami coach Dave Wannstedt was beside himself, screaming at his team as they sheepishly trotted to the sideline.
That seemed to inspire something.
Fiedler (21 of 37, 320 yards), completed passes of 10, 16, and 7 yards, leading his club to the 18 before the drive stalled and Miami settled for Mare’s 36-yard field goal.