FOXBOROUGH - In the rare Patriots season that concluded before the playoffs, no team tormented them more than the Miami Dolphins in 2008. In the fall, the Dolphins embarrassed them at their home field with an offense no one had seen before. In the winter, they stood atop the division the Patriots have owned for a decade.
“That was definitely something that we talked about all week,” linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. “We knew this was our biggest division game this year. We had a lot to lose and a lot to gain.”
With their 27-17 win over the Dolphins yesterday at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots took a major step toward negating a repeat of last year’s sour finish. They regained control of the AFC East with their third consecutive victory, an outlasting of the rugged and innovative Dolphins.
The Patriots countered Miami’s bruising offense with Randy Moss, who proved again why he is one of the most explosive players in league history. He caught six passes for 147 yards, including an intermediate throw over the middle in the third quarter that he turned into a game-winning 71-yard touchdown.
When Moss sprinted down the field, a stiff-armed defender behind him, an empty end zone in front of him, the Patriots had provided a pair of responses. The Dolphins may hold the ball with their vaunted Wildcat, but the Patriots can explode on one play. The Dolphins may be the reigning champions, but the Patriots are again the team to beat in the division.
“That was a typical AFC East game,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s a big division win. That was a huge win for us.”
The Patriots received contributions from across their roster. Stephen Gostkowski booted four field goals and kept kick returner Ted Ginn at bay with booming touchbacks. Adalius Thomas made a crucial third-quarter sack of Miami quarterback Chad Henne on a trick play. The offensive line, playing most of the game with Dan Connolly at center for the injured Dan Koppen, kept Jason Taylor and Joey Porter out of the backfield, helping Tom Brady complete 25 of 37 passes for 332 yards and a touchdown. Laurence Maroney ran for 82 yards on 20 carries.
But Moss, more than anyone, is the reason the Patriots are 6-2 and the Dolphins (3-5) lost their first game against a division opponent. When the Patriots reached their most desperate moment, they relied on Moss.
The Dolphins held the ball for the first 10 minutes and nine seconds of the second half, churning 66 yards over 16 plays. When Ronnie Brown threw a 1-yard touchdown pass out of the Wildcat to tight end Joey Haynos, the Dolphins took a 17-16 lead.
The Patriots defense slogged off the field, defeated and gassed. (”Work on your breathing technique,” defensive lineman Ty Warren said. “In through the nose, out through the mouth.”) The New England offense took the field, rested and focused.
“Whenever the other team scores, we always feel we need to answer their score with a score of our own,” guard Logan Mankins said. “We were going out there trying to answer their touchdown.”
After two plays, the Patriots faced third and 1 from their 29. In the huddle, Brady called crossing routes for Moss and Wes Welker. Moss, lined up to the left, noticed the safety cheat toward Welker.
After the snap, the safety still favored Welker when he and Moss crossed, likely because Welker was deeper. Moss sprinted a step ahead of rookie cornerback Vontae Davis, finding open space by the right hashmark by the time Brady zipped him a pass in stride. Moss jammed his right hand into Davis’s facemask, sending him flailing. No one else was there.
“It’s always nice for a quarterback when you see the back of 81 sprinting down the field once he gets by them,” Brady said. “There’s not too many guys that can catch him.”
Moss could jog the final 10 yards or so. The Dolphins had controlled the clock and seized momentum - “exactly how you got to play those people,” Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. In an instant, the Patriots stole their lead and their morale.
“That’s like getting stabbed in the heart,” Mankins said. “You grind it out for 10 minutes and finally score, and your defense lets them score in a minute and a half. That has to be pretty deflating.”
The Dolphins sent tremors across the league last season when they dominated the Patriots at Gillette using their now famous Wildcat. Miami offensive coordinator Dan Henning, Belichick said, unveils something new each week. It seems he saves his most diabolical and surprising ideas for the Patriots.
Late in the first half, after they had run a play out of the Wildcat, the Dolphins revealed another formation previously confined to the college game. Rookie quarterback Pat White, a master of the spread-option offense from his days at West Virginia, trotted onto the field, and the Dolphins lined up in the Pistol offense to run the option.
“You definitely got to expect some wrinkles,” Warren said. “That was the wrinkle.”
In the Pistol, the quarterback - White - stands in a shortened shotgun with the running back directly behind him. The offense, invented by Nevada coach Chris Ault, allows for a diverse array of running plays, as the Dolphins set out to prove.
On his first snap, White ran the option left. Banta-Cain wavered as to whether to tackle him or account for the pitch man. Anyone knows the feeling of forgetting a lesson from college. White kept the ball and weaved 33 yards.
Three plays later, White ran the option to the right. This time, he pitched early to Ricky Williams, who scampered 15 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots defense gathered around Belichick on the sideline as he explained on-the-fly adjustments, a scene repeating from last year.
This year, the game ended differently. The Patriots solved and stifled the exotic formations, not allowing a point in the fourth quarter. Moss did the rest. Together, they gave the Patriots reason to expect the season also will end differently.
As for the immediate future, the schedule offers no chance to reflect. A trip to face the undefeated Colts next Sunday night looms. It was pointed out to Brady that people like to see Patriots-Colts games. He smile when he answered, “We like to see it, too.”