FOXBOROUGH - Before yesterday's game, if you were told that rookie quarterbacks Kevin O'Connell (Patriots) and Chad Henne (Miami Dolphins) would be on the field in the fourth quarter, the safe assumption would have been that the Patriots had routed the Dolphins. But as the Patriots learned yesterday, in a Tom Brady-less world there are no safe assumptions or walkthrough wins.
No, the Patriots (2-1) were not the routers yesterday; they were the routed, pummeled, 38-13, by Miami at Gillette Stadium, as the Dolphins put on a stunning display of offensive and defensive dominance that left the Foxborough Faithful scrambling for the exits midway through the fourth quarter and delivered Tony Sparano's first NFL head coaching victory.
This wasn't some fluke victory. Miami never trailed. It led, 21-6, at halftime, jumped out to a commanding 28-6 lead in the third quarter, and took all the suspense out of snapping the Patriots' NFL-record 21-game regular-season winning streak.
The Dolphins had handed the Patriots their previous regular-season loss, a 21-0 setback in Miami Dec. 10, 2006.
Riding running back Ronnie Brown (17 carries for 113 yards, four rushing touchdowns, and a 19-yard TD pass), who confounded the Patriots by lining up in the shotgun at quarterback, Miami rushed 36 times for 216 yards, its highest total since racking up 256 yards in an overtime loss to the Patriots in 2002, and had 461 net yards of offense, the most since 1999.
"It doesn't matter what a team did before. They have enough good players. If you just come out there and think you can just show up and beat someone, and they come in motivated, it isn't going to happen in this league," said defensive end Richard Seymour. "You have to be prepared, and I think they came in with a good game plan and they executed, and we really didn't have any answers for it."
While Miami (1-2) marched up and down the field, quarterback Matt Cassel - who was replaced by O'Connell with 6:05 left in the game - and the Patriots offense (216 yards) were stuck in neutral.
Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter, who backed up his trash talk with three sacks and a forced fumble, insulted Cassel (19 of 31 for 131 yards, one touchdown, one interception, one lost fumble) leading up to the game, but it was the quarterback's fans who verbally abused him yesterday, booing Cassel - and his teammates - as they headed off the field at halftime.
"It was bad from the jump and just kept spiraling down the whole game," said wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who caught Cassel's lone touchdown pass, a 5-yarder with 3:20 left in the third quarter that pulled the Patriots within 28-13. "We never really got anything going."
The same could be said of wide receiver Randy Moss, who followed up his two-catch effort against the Jets with four catches for 25 yards.
Cassel tossed his first interception of the season to end a first-quarter scoring threat, getting picked off by defensive lineman Randy Starks, who perfectly read a screen pass on third and goal from the Miami 16.
The play before it appeared Cassel had scored on a gritty 12-yard scramble. However, referee Bill Carollo blew the play dead, ruling Cassel in the grasp before he escaped Dolphins defensive end Phillip Merling.
The Dolphins turned Cassel's ill-timed turnover into a touchdown. On second and goal from the 2, Brown took a shotgun direct snap, faked a handoff to Ricky Williams on an end around, and scooted in for the first of his Dolphins-record four rushing touchdowns to give Miami a 7-0 lead.
That marked the first of three straight Miami drives that ended in the end zone.
After a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington (17 of 20 for 226 yards), who makes up for his popgun arm with pinpoint accuracy, exploited the Patriots defense down the seam with a 33-yard hookup with wideout Greg Camarillo and a 21-yard completion to David Martin. That set up a 15-yard Brown TD run that came via a conventional handoff.
The Patriots benefited from some accidental offense, as a Cassel pass somehow slipped through Renaldo Hill's hands to Wes Welker for a 21-yard gain, leading to Gostkowski's second field goal of the second quarter.
But Miami went back to the direct snap. Brown faked a handoff before sailing in for a 5-yard TD 59 seconds before halftime.
In the third quarter, Brown took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff, rolled to his left, and threw a 19-yard TD pass to Anthony Fasano that gave Miami a 28-6 lead.
With the score 28-13, Brown took another direct snap and raced 62 yards to the end zone, just 11 seconds into the fourth quarter, to finish off the Patriots.
"Just seeing the way the Dolphins performed out there, they just wanted it more," said Moss. "That sounds crazy for me to say, but I was out there, and I could really see it. There were a couple of plays that we had that you could really feel that we could get the offense going. There were a couple of plays that the defense would get going. But it was like every time we stepped up they smashed us in the mouth with a defensive stop or some kind of first down or touchdown."
Coupled with Buffalo's comeback win over the Raiders yesterday, the Patriots' lethargic loss left them looking up in the AFC East standings at the 3-0 Bills heading into New England's bye week.
But don't expect the Patriots to spend the week in a panic.
"I'm always going to enjoy my bye week. You work hard. All the guys put in a lot of effort," said safety Rodney Harrison. "You're not going to come in and win every single game. It's just not going to happen, so you learn from the mistakes you had and you get better. That's life and that's the nature of this game. You get better. You get bitter or you get better, or you get both."