MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - In a surprising turn of events, it was not the Patriots offense that was largely responsible for their 41-14 win over the Dolphins last night.
It was their special teams. And Rob Ninkovich.
Patrick Chung blocked a punt and a field goal - both leading to touchdowns - Brandon Tate had a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Ninkovich two first-half interceptions, leading New England to its first significant road win since late in the 2008 season, when it won in Seattle, Oakland, and Buffalo in December.
The Patriots became the first team in NFL history with a rushing touchdown, a receiving TD, a kickoff return for a TD, a blocked field goal for a TD, and an interception return for TD in the same game.
Since it had been so long since they had a strong outing away from Gillette Stadium in a meaningful game, coach Bill Belichick played the “no faith” card during the week, noting to his players that none of the media members picking games for the team’s in-house newspaper had chosen it to win in South Florida.
After the game, members of the defense were crowing about the “so-called experts” and linebacker Gary Guyton sported a T-shirt that read “I [heart] haters!”
Guyton’s unit has received much of the criticism for New England’s uneven start, and was able to answer critics who said the offense would be bailing out the D for much of the season.
“We’re not slouches either but we had to prove it to ourselves and really make a statement,” Tully Banta-Cain said. “There was no confidence lost in ourselves, but there were concerns about the win over Buffalo. We knew we had to play 60 minutes.”
Belichick was effusive in his praise.
“I am really proud of the players - offense, defense, special teams,” he said. “Miami is a good football team; I am sure we haven’t heard the last of them. Tonight was our night and the credit goes to the players. Those guys played hard and they made plays all night.”
The Patriots flew home victorious despite just 153 yards passing from Tom Brady, who was an efficient 19 for 24, and without a catch from Randy Moss, the first time in his three-plus seasons in New England he did not record a reception in a game.
With the victory, Brady became the 11th NFL quarterback to register 100 wins.
The special teams turned the tide coming out of the locker room from halftime.
On the second-half kickoff, Tate fielded the ball 3 yards deep in the end zone and ran it out. He sliced through traffic near the 20-yard line, got a block from Sammy Morris, broke toward the right sideline, and turned on the jets.
The touchdown was the second kickoff Tate has taken to the end zone this season, after his 97-yarder on opening day against the Bengals. He is the first Patriots player since Kevin Faulk in 2002 to record two return TDs in one season.
“I give all the credit to my teammates for doing their assignments; it wouldn’t have been possible [without them],” said Tate. “It was a big play for us and we kept going from there.”
On the ensuing Miami drive, New England forced a three-and-out in Dolphin territory. When Brandon Fields tried to punt, Patrick Chung was there to block it. Brandon Spikes made the recovery.
Taking over from the 15, the Patriots needed just two plays, both from BenJarvus Green-Ellis: a 3-yard run and a 12-yard push into the end zone.
Chung also recorded his first pick-6, pulling in Chad Henne’s third interception of the night and racing 51 yards for the touchdown.
“[Henne] threw it right to me,” said Chung. “I was shocked. Right place, right time.”
While the special teams shined in the second half, it was Ninkovich who kept them close in the first half.
The 26-year-old Ninkovich - who little more than 18 months ago was with the Saints and practicing at long snapper intercepted Henne twice, helping to hold Miami to just 7 points in the opening 30 minutes.
Ninkovich first struck near the end of the first quarter. The defense allowed a 13-yard gain to Davone Bess on third and 11, and on the next snap, Henne looked to Brandon Marshall for the first time on the night.
But Ninkovich stepped in front of the ball, pulling it in for his first career pick.
He didn’t have to wait nearly as long to get his second.
In the second quarter, on the 10th play of a drive, Henne looked to ex-Patriot Patrick Cobbs on the right sideline.
Ninkovich was there again, however, this time going airborne for the interception.
“It feels pretty good; I was here as a practice squad guy,” said Ninkovich, who bounced back and forth between Miami’s 53-man and practice rosters in 2008.
Ninkovich’s picks led to a pair of field goals.
After his first interception, Brady went on the kind of grinding, clock-eating drive he successfully engineered last week against the Bills.
The drive featured a lot of Green-Ellis and a fourth-down conversion on a sneak by Brady. The Patriots had first and goal at the 9 when Sebastian Vollmer missed his assignment and Cameron Wake blew past him, dropping Brady for a 6-yard loss.
New England could not recover, and had to settle for a 23-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski.
It was a 13-play drive, ending with a 30-yard kick from Gostkowski, that came out of the second interception. In two-minute mode, the Patriots picked up mostly short yardage. On first down from the Miami 12, Brady tried to fool the defense with a fake spike, but looked to Moss in the left corner of the end zone instead.
The pass went just off Moss’s fingertips after he had to adjust to the ball in the air.
Brady was sacked on second down, leaving New England with three seconds to go before the half, and it settled for the field goal to head into the locker room.
The Patriots, who won the coin toss but deferred to the second half, have typically gotten off to a hot start offensively, but that was not the case last night, as their first two drives netted all of one first down.
Though the game began slowly, Aaron Hernandez had no doubt the offense would put things together.
“Once we found ourselves we’re hard to stop because we have so many weapons,” he said. “If we struggle we know we can explode at any second.”