MIAMI - Asante Samuel had chest bumping in mind, and there was no shortage of teammates willing to oblige.
Defensive linemen, linebackers, even offensive players who were coming onto the field so that Tom Brady could take the required kneel-down, offered flying chest matches for the Patriots cornerback.
It was time to rejoice in triumph.
Twice on this day and for the first times this season a New England opponent ventured into the red zone and came away without points. The last fruitless effort began as first and goal at the 5-yard line, and ended with an incomplete pass on fourth down from the 10.
A defensive stand for one of the weaker units in the NFL. A 23-16 victory.
A win over Miami yesterday before a paid attendance of 73,405 at Dolphins Stadium, including a healthy dose of New England fans, that the Patriots feel came in part because of their renewed enthusiasm.
“It’s not just stopping them in the red zone, it’s winning the game, that felt good,” Samuel said. “Coach told us to play with emotion and get excited, so we got excited.”
Team captains held a players-only meeting Saturday night, and spoke to the players about playing with fervor.
“Our attitude was as a team we needed to play with a lot more passion; don’t just sit there and wait for the next guy to make a play,” said defensive end Richard Seymour, in the lineup for the first time since he injured his knee Oct. 2.
“Emotion and energy, those are two words that we wanted to bring out today,” added linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
With two turnovers forced, the Patriots (5-4) also brought a level of playmaking defensively that has been missing much of the season, and was particularly lacking last Monday in a 40-21 loss at home to unbeaten Indianapolis. The Patriots even seemed to want to send a message with the win over the Dolphins (3-6), which kept them a game ahead of Buffalo in the AFC East and moved them two games in front of Miami.
“There’s a lot of football left,” Seymour said. “I think at this point right now, the media is trying to put the Colts and the Giants in the Super Bowl, but we’ve got something to say about it. That’s why you play the games.”
New England played well enough to win despite the continued injury problems that have plagued the team throughout the season.
Tight end Daniel Graham (shoulder), tackle Tom Ashworth (knee), and receiver David Givens (knee) were among the inactives for the game. Tailback Corey Dillon started, but lasted just one play after apparently suffering an injury to his right calf. Starting center Dan Koppen left in the third quarter with an arm injury and didn’t return.
No problem. Tight end Benjamin Watson had his first career two-touchdown game. Receiver Tim Dwight had three receptions for 70 yards highlighted by a 59-yard grab on the winning drive the most catches and yards he has had as a Patriot. Fullback Heath Evans, signed by the Patriots two weeks ago, ran the ball a career-high 17 times for a career-best 84 yards. Brandon Gorin subbed for Ashworth at tackle and Russ Hochstein replaced Koppen, with no noticeable dropoff.
“It was gritty and it was tough,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who completed 21 of 36 passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. “I think the players did a lot of soul-searching this week. I think the players really dug deep.”
The teams combined to score 26 points in the final 15-plus minutes beginning with Watson’s first touchdown on the final play of the third period turning what had been a mundane contest into a thriller.
Miami took a 16-15 lead on Chris Chambers’s 15-yard catch after Miami quarterback Gus Frerotte was surprised by the snap in the shotgun and had to pick up the ball after it bounced off him. When Frerotte finally looked up, Chambers was wide open, as Samuel and safety Eugene Wilson seemed to get confused as to what coverage the Patriots were in.
But the Patriots went 76 yards in two plays Dwight’s 59-yard fingertip catch-and-run and Watson’s 17-yard reception to take the lead with 2 minutes 16 seconds to play.
The Dolphins, who had 437 yards of offense, put together what they hoped would be the tying drive, moving forward 70 yards only to be denied.
Miami elected to throw the ball four times after getting to the Patriots’ 5, with 58 seconds left. The Patriots were in an all-out blitz on the first three plays, hoping to disrupt Frerotte.
Twice Miami went in the direction of cornerback Ellis Hobbs, starting for the first time in his career. Hobbs, a 5-foot-9-inch rookie from Iowa State, was matched against Marty Booker (five catches for 102 yards) on first down and Chambers on second. The Dolphins came up empty both times.
“Those were a couple of big plays there by Ellis on those fade balls we know they like,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
On third down, a dump-off to Ronnie Brown went for negative yardage, and the final pass attempt bounced off the hands of Chambers, attempting to make a tough catch with Samuel draped on his back.
“The bottom line is to win and we’ve been known to win in November and December,” Seymour said. “We’re just trying to string ‘em together. We have to be more consistent. We can’t keep going one up, one down, as far as wins and losses.
“We know and understand we can get it done.”