Air and space: Passing game helps Patriots down Dolphins
FOXBOROUGH -- In the rare Patriots season that concluded before the playoffs, no team tormented them more than the Miami Dolphins. Last 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 Sunday, the Patriots took a major step toward negating a repeat of last year's sour finish. The Patriots maintained control of the AFC East at Gillette Stadium 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, the Patriots had provided a pair of responses. The Dolphins may hold the ball with their vaunted Wildcat, but the Patriots can explode in 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. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted four field goals and kept at bay kick returner Ted Ginn 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 10:09 of the second half, churning 66 yards over 16 plays. When Ronnie Brown threw a one-yard touchdown pass out 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 Patriots 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," Patriots 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 own 29. In the huddle, Tom 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 as he slanted across, 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 the of No. 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 there," 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 Stadium using their now infamous Wildcat. Dolphins
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, 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 on to 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 shorted shotgun with the running 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 Williams, who scampered 15 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots defense gathered around Bill Belichick on the sidelines as he explained on-the-fly adjustments, a scene of history 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 will also end differently.
As for the immediate future, the schedule offers no chance to reflect. A trip to face the undefeated Indianapolis Colts next Sunday night looms. It was pointed out to Brady that people like to see Pats-Colts games. He smile when he answered, "We like to see it, too."