MIAMI - Last time, they buried the ball. This time, they could only bury their heads.
That was about the only difference between last season’s 30-10 defeat in Miami, when coach Bill Belichick buried the game ball near the practice field the day after the game to help his team forget the game and move on, and yesterday’s sound trouncing.
A 26-13 defeat to the Dolphins before 73,369 fans with the temperature 87 degrees and the humidity 69 percent dropped the Patriots out of first place in the AFC East with a 3-2 record, one game behind the Dolphins.
Last season’s loss brought the Patriots to their lowest point, 1-3, in their Super Bowl season. Yesterday’s defeat brought the Patriots to a point they hadn’t seen in two years - they lost their second straight game for the first time in the Tom Brady era (they did lose two in a row at the start of last season under Drew Bledsoe). They also lost their 13th straight game to the Dolphins in September and October here.
It seems even hotter when your defense stays on the field for almost 40 minutes.
“We left ourselves with a lot of third-and-longs,” said wide receiver Troy Brown, who watched the game on the sideline after being a pregame scratch (knee). “We’d get stopped on the run on first down and second down, and left ourselves with a few third and 12s. You can make some of those, but you can’t make enough of them to overcome it.”
That’s because the Patriots couldn’t run the ball. They had wanted Antowain Smith to punish the Dolphins’ defense, but Smith had only 14 yards on nine carries. The Patriots ran it 17 times for 37 yards. And so it fell on Tom Brady.
The Patriots quarterback completed 17 of 31 passes for 240 yards, two interceptions, and two touchdown passes in the second half. Not having Brown for the second straight game proved to be a huge factor again.
“We had an idea we were going to try and run it and throw some play-action passes,” said Brady. “They kept a lot of pressure on us with their front seven. They stopped our run pretty good. But we talked at halftime like we were going to win the game. We said we were going to fight until the clock said 0:00.”
Not even a very loud locker room at halftime could spirit the Patriots to a second-half rally, with the exception of a third-quarter touchdown pass from Brady to David Patten for 34 yards with 9:35 remaining after Tedy Bruschi had forced a Ricky Williams fumble. Then, and only then, was there hope in Patriots Nation that the defending world champions could turn things around. They were trailing, 16-6 (the conversion pass failed), with lots of time left.
But the momentum shift was fleeting. The Dolphins reasserted themselves.
In fact, the Dolphins did what the Patriots couldn’t do - convert on third down. The Dolphins converted 9 of 17 in the game for 53 percent, while the Patriots converted only 3 of 10.
“It’s tough when you’re tired, fighting and winning first and second down, but then they convert on third down,” said linebacker Mike Vrabel. “We had to continue to line up and play, but they kept converting on third downs.”
The Patriots did hold the Dolphins to 3.1 yards per carry, and held Williams to 2.9 yards a carry. But he carried 36 times for 105 yards. He never broke one, but he kept moving the chains.
“When teams carry the ball over 25 times, their winning percentage is about 90 percent,” said Williams. “It’s not always about being able to get yards. When you run the ball, it’s also taking time off the clock.”
The Patriots often would have eight men up in the box, and “they were blitzing the gaps and making sure there weren’t any lines for us to run through. I think they did a good job,” Williams said.
The Patriots continued to turn the ball over on offense and couldn’t make the Dolphins turn it over on defense.
For instance, Brady marched the Patriots to the Miami 46 with 5:28 remaining in the first quarter, but on third and 22 after Mike Compton’s 15-yard personal foul penalty took the Patriots out of field goal range, Brady was sacked by Jason Taylor, who beat a double team of Matt Light and J.R. Redmond, stripped the ball, and Adewale Ogunleye recovered at the Patriots 39.
Soon after Jay Fiedler converted on a key third and 4 at the Patriots 33 when he tossed to Oronde Gadsden for 10 yards. He then converted on a third and 1, handing to Williams for 4 yards to the Patriots 10. And on third and goal from the 8, Fiedler scrambled into the end zone for the first Miami score, though Olindo Mare’s extra point was blocked by Tebucky Jones.
“Throughout the game [the Patriots] were playing a lot of man, underneath coverage,” said Fiedler. “I knew there would be some chance to run the football if I did get a lane through the pass rush. I went to about two or three reads. I just ducked away from the defensive lineman [Willie McGinest], saw the corner, and was able to stumble my way in there.”
Another Brady miscue gave the Dolphins a second score in the second quarter. With five seconds gone in the quarter, Brady’s third-and-11 pass to Deion Branch deflected off Sam Madison’s hands into the hands of Patrick Surtain at the Patriots 29.
The Dolphins were about to settle for a 36-yard field goal, when Bruschi was called for an illegal bat (when he crawled over the back of a Dolphin blocker) on the field goal attempt, which gave Miami a first down at the 9. On third down from the 7, Fiedler found Chris Chambers in the back of the end zone with a bullet thrown over Ty Law. The Dolphins added a 40-yard field goal with 1:11 remaining in the half to take a 16-0 lead.
While the Patriots played better in the second half, it just wasn’t enough.
Bruschi put a shoulder into Williams to jar the ball loose (it was recovered by Victor Green) and set up the 34-yard touchdown pass to Patten. The Patriots went for 2 points, but Brady’s pass intended for Vrabel was incomplete.
That led to a Miami drive of 5:29 at the end of the third quarter, with Fiedler hitting Chambers for a 17-yard gain on third and 8 to the Miami 45. On the 10th play, Fiedler found rookie tight end Randy McMichael for a 1-yard pass over Jones, making it 23-6.
The Patriots pulled within 10 points with 4:41 left, by this time having abandoned the running game for the spread offense they had been successful with in their three wins. Brady connected with Patten again for the touchdown, this time from 25 yards.
But the Dolphins recovered the onside kick attempt by Adam Vinatieri and marched for another 3 points on Mare’s 33-yarder.
Two losses into the season and fighting to regain their Super Bowl form, middle linebacker Ted Johnson reasoned, “I think we operate better from the position we’re now in. There’s got to be a sense of urgency. Now we have to win, and we have to win next week. It’s rhetoric, but it’s that simple.”