FOXBOROUGH - Linebacker Tedy Bruschi said the bottom line is points allowed, and in that case, the Patriots’ defense has been on top of its game this season. No opponent has scored more than 17 points against New England’s stingy `D.’
But still, something had been nagging the Patriots’ prideful defenders.
“I think the biggest complaint we had about ourselves early on was that we weren’t forcing turnovers,” Bruschi said. “We wanted to win that battle. It was a big goal for us.”
The Patriots achieved that goal yesterday in a 20-10 victory over the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium, as the defense forced three turnovers, which led to 17 points. The team also blocked a field goal and tackled Miami punter Donnie Jones when he fumbled a snap in the third quarter.
Coach Bill Belichick called the turnovers “huge,” as cornerback Asante Samuel had two interceptions and safety Rodney Harrison forced a fumble that Bruschi recovered on the Dolphins’ opening possession. The Patriots, who had just one interception and two fumble recoveries entering the game, took over in Dolphins territory after each turnover.
Yesterday’s victory puts the Patriots (4-1) in a commanding position in the AFC East, with the Bills (2-3), Jets (2-3), and Dolphins (1-4) all lagging behind. Heading into their bye week, the Patriots have a win over each division foe this season and improved their AFC East record to 28-7 since 2001, the best mark of any NFL team against division opponents.
The team opened a 13-0 lead midway through the second quarter before the Dolphins closed to 13-10 at halftime. But the Patriots scored the lone points of the second half after Samuel’s second interception gave them the ball at the Miami 24 yard-line with 10:43 to play.
On perhaps the key play of the game, a third and 8, quarterback Tom Brady (16 of 29 for 140 yards, 2 touchdowns) lofted a pass to receiver Doug Gabriel in the right-hand corner of the end zone. Dolphins cornerback Will Allen, who didn’t look back for the ball, was flagged for pass interference. That gave the Patriots the ball on the 1, and Brady promptly found Heath Evans for a 1-yard TD reception on the next play.
Miami coach Nick Saban was irate at the penalty, marching down the sideline and vehemently pleading his case with the nearby official. After the game, he snapped at reporters before they could ask him his thoughts on the call, reminding them he could be fined by the league for any remarks.
The score provided the breathing room the Patriots needed, as they improved to 53-2 when holding a halftime lead with Brady at quarterback.
“We just had too many penalties  and turnovers to overcome it,” Saban said. “The turnovers were definitely the difference in the game. Then we got the pass interference, which broke the game open for them.”
The Dolphins’ first turnover came on the game’s third play, when Harrison lowered the boom on running back Ronnie Brown (39 yards, 17 carries), jarring the ball loose, with Bruschi recovering at Miami’s 37. That set up a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, giving the Patriots a 3-0 lead just 3:21 into the contest.
With Joey Harrington (26 of 41 for 232 yards, 2 interceptions) starting at quarterback in place of the injured Daunte Culpepper, the Dolphins then marched to the Patriots’ 22. The drive stalled and Olindo Mare’s 40-yard field goal attempt was blocked by defensive lineman Mike Wright. Mare’s plant foot slipped on the torn up playing field, much like Gostkowski’s did against the Broncos Sept. 24.
The Patriots responded with a 15-play, 56-yard drive, ending in Gostkowski’s 31-yard field goal with 10:13 left in the second quarter.
Then, on Miami’s ensuing possession, Samuel intercepted Harrington at the Dolphins’ 36 and returned it to the 10. Two plays later, Brady zipped a pass to Troy Brown in the end zone and the Patriots led, 13-0.
“I was able to beat the guy inside and [Brady] kept his eye on me and was able to put it down where he needed to put it,” said Brown, who is now six catches shy of breaking the team’s all-time receptions record of 534, held by Stanley Morgan.
Yet Miami gained some momentum with an 80-yard drive midway through the second quarter, culminating in Ronnie Brown’s 2-yard touchdown run with 2:56 left in the half. A 40-yard Mare field goal with 24 seconds left accounted for the 13-10 halftime score.
Miami advanced into the Patriots’ territory three times in the second half, but came up empty each time first on the fumbled punt, then on a Patriots’ defensive stop, and finally on a missed Mare 50-yard field goal.
After the game, several Patriots spoke about the positive momentum the team had created. And almost to a man, they all agreed that turnovers were the key to yesterday’s victory.
“I’ve been preaching about turnovers the entire year,” Harrison said. “We’re starting to create some. Guys are doing a good job of flying around and getting their hands on the ball.”