FOXBOROUGH -- The two-time defending Super Bowl Champions were there, but not there.
In the stadium, but not in the game. In uniform, but not on the field.
In the regular-season finale, a game in which the Patriots fell to the Miami Dolphins, 28-26, the football that was played was not the football New England fans have come to expect.
In what was generally a meaningless game, the Patriots rested players who could have played, played players at positions they have not played and in situations they have only dreamed about, and pulled out a play that hasn’t been used in the league in more than 60 years.
Coach Bill Belichick even started at quarterback.
OK, that was a family touch pickup game near the north end zone at Gillette Stadium more than an hour after the NFL contest, but with rookie Matt Cassel throwing the potential tying pass in the direction of rookie Bam Childress, and designated No. 3 quarterback Doug Flutie scoring a point for the Patriots with the first successful NFL drop kick since 1941, the professional game witnessed by the sellout crowd was odd enough.
“Well, one of the things we wanted to do today was play competitively against a good football team, which Miami is,” Belichick said.
Notice he failed to mention that his team wanted to win. Already saddled with a first-round playoff game (Saturday night vs. Jacksonville at Gillette), victory for the Patriots meant only a change in opponent. Because of Cincinnati’s loss, New England (10-6) could have claimed the third seed in the AFC, and would have hosted Pittsburgh with a win.
Belichick said the upcoming playoffs had nothing to do with the decision to pull the majority of his starters after the first quarter against the Dolphins (9-7), who finished the season with a six-game win streak.
Even with reserves on the field and players such as Tom Brady seated comfortably on the heated bench, his feet inside the warm openings at the base, his hands inside a large hand warmer, and a parka covering his No. 12 jersey the Patriots gave a hearty effort.
“If I’m in there playing, you know I want to win,” defensive end Ty Warren, one of the few starters to play throughout the contest. “[The loss] definitely would be a bigger disappointment if we didn’t have another game to play.
“You may not see guys that are as angry and upset after this loss as you would see if it was a loss earlier in the season, or if this was our last game.”
The Patriots’ locker room was far from the typically subdued quarters after a defeat, though the young players and veteran reserves who saw action certainly were disappointed to come up short.
Cassel, the former University of Southern California backup seeing his most significant action of the season (and since high school), threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes as the Patriots fought back from a 12-point deficit.
The last score, a 9-yard toss to Benjamin Watson, came after the clock expired and pulled the Patriots within a 2-point conversion of sending the game into overtime. But Cassel overthrew an open Childress with a pass he said slipped out of his hand. Childress, activated off the practice squad before the game, played receiver, nickel cornerback, and special teams in his first NFL game.
Brady, who started for the 87th straight time, played only three possessions, leading the Patriots to a touchdown an 11-yard pass to Deion Branch before exiting with the worst statistics of his career for a game he started.
“I still wanted to go out there,” said Brady, who completed 3 of 8 passes for 37 yards. “I said, `Coach, let me go out there one more time,’ and he said, `No, you’re done.’
“We prepared; we played to win. We practiced hard all week, we just came up short. It’s exciting. When you’re a spectator, it’s a little bit different out there. You get nervous, but you can’t control what is going on. But I was proud of the way our guys fought.”
Brady left with the scored tied, 7-7, taking many of the first-teamers with him.
Defensively, Warren was the lone player of the front seven to stay in the game, plus linebacker Tedy Bruschi was inactive because of a calf injury. The depleted secondary, with cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Artrell Hawkins upstairs watching from a suite, was left pretty much untouched.
Offensively, the first-team receivers departed early, though Branch came back late for a couple of plays, and tailback Corey Dillon (calf) didn’t suit up for the game. The Patriots’ starting offensive line played through the first half, but most sat after the intermission.
The Dolphins outgained the Patriots, 378-259, the most yards given up by New England since Nov. 27 at Kansas City, and did not give much thought to how the game was won, only that they picked up their first win ever at Gillette Stadium.
“They didn’t play a lot of their guys in the second quarter or second half, but it really doesn’t matter a win is a win,” quarterback Gus Frerotte said.
Frerotte was 22 of 35 for 239 yards with a fourth-quarter touchdown to Marty Booker that gave the Dolphins a 25-13 lead with just over nine minutes to play.
Miami got 108 yards rushing from Ricky Williams and totaled 148 on the ground to the Patriots’ 55 (in 28 carries). It is the most yards allowed by New England since a loss at Denver, 10 games ago. In fact, the Patriots had allowed just 125 rushing yards in their previous four games, all victories.
One could say the Patriots were not particularly concerned about statistics, but do not suggest they were not concerned about winning or losing.
“Anybody who says that, they’re knuckleheads,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “Anybody that knows the Patriots knows we play to win. When we step on that field, we’re trying to accomplish one goal and one goal only, and that’s to win.”