How’d they do it? Let’s count the ways
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Calling all veteran Patsologists, calling all veteran Patsologists. In all your 50 years of Pats watching, have you ever seen anything like this?
I’ve only been watching them on and off since 1964, and I sure haven’t.
If anything, last night’s was the kind of game we’d have expected one of those funky Patriots teams from the 1970s or ’80s to lose, especially on the road. A 103-yard Brandon Tate kickoff return? A Patrick Chung blocked punt setting up a touchdown and a Patrick Chung blocked field goal attempt returned by Kyle Arrington for another touchdown? A 51-yard pick-6 return by — you should know by now — Patrick Chung? Exactly 6 of the Patriots’ points were scored on a legitimate, honest-to-God touchdown drive?
Well, you know, whatever it takes, I guess.
It all added up to a sweet, and ultimately decisive 41-14 victory over the Dolphins that leaves the Patriots tied with the Jets for the division lead at 3-1, and that leaves the Dolphins in a bit of tiebreaker Hades if it ever comes to that. Yes, it was only Week 4, but it really was the first strategically important game of the season, and thus a very good one for somebody to win.
A welcome subplot for the Patriots is that this now will be a far more pleasant bye week than it would have been had they lost.
NFL coaches preach special teams incessantly, but this game may stand the test of time as the gold standard of special teams play. I will wager that no other NFL team will score 41 points this year with one touchdown drive longer than 15 yards.
“The turnovers and special teams were a mess,’’ said Miami coach Tony Sparano. “These fans deserve better than that.’’
Was he talking about the fans who as he spoke were all over the highways and byways of South Florida? Gazing out at the spectacularly empty Sun Life Stadium during the final eight minutes or so, it was difficult to recall the fact that the Dolphins had led this one by a 7-6 score at the half after outplaying the Patriots for most of the first 30 minutes. The Dolphins had absolutely no trouble moving the football, advancing from their 20 to the Patriots 38 on their first possession and then going 64 yards in seven plays for a touchdown on their second.
Things were still going their way on their third possession with a first and 10 at their 45 when a Chad Henne pass intended for none other than Brandon Marshall was intercepted by Rob Ninkovich. The Patriots chugged somewhat gracelessly down the field before stalling at the Miami 5. Stephen Gostkowski came on to kick a 23-yard field goal, which didn’t seem like much of a dividend from a 16-play drive.
Now one interception by Rob Ninkovich would be noteworthy, since that was the first of his NFL career. But this was a night unlike any other because on a Miami first and 10 at the Patriots’ 25 Ninkovich made an acrobatic diving interception of a Henne pass intended for Patrick Cobbs. Rob Ninkovich with two picks? What can one say?
The end result of that one was another Gostkowski field goal, this one a 30-yarder as time expired in the half. The Patriots had to feel quite fortunate to be down only by that 7-6 score.
No one possibly could have been prepared for what transpired in the first three minutes of the second half. Dan Carpenter kicked the ball 3 yards deep in the end zone to Brandon Tate, who, you may recall, began the second half of the Cincinnati game by taking one 97 yards to the house. This time he started to go straight, veered right to the outside, and somewhere around the 35 avoided the last man wearing a teal jersey, and that was that. Whereas the TD return against the Bengals had smacked of overkill (making the score 31-3), this one had given the Patriots an improbable 13-7 lead.
The Miami offense went nowhere, and so Brandon Fields came on to punt. Eric Smith of the Jets had blocked one last week, leading Sparano to vow that things would be cleaned up. Well, maybe not. For the aggressive Mr. Chung came crashing in to block the punt, setting the Patriots up at the Miami 15. Two plays later BenJarvis Green-Ellis ran a no-muss, no-fuss, north-south route for a 12-yard touchdown. In just two minutes and 16 seconds the Patriots had turned the game around.
In the midst of all this glorious special teams play, there was actually one meaningful drive. The Dolphins had marched 80 yards in eight plays on their second possession of the third quarter to make it 20-14. But Brady took the team 78 yards in 12 plays, eight of which were — ready for this? — runs. The drive was capped nicely by an 11-yard TD pass from Brady to Danny Woodhead. Yes, that’s right: Danny Woodhead. I told you it was that kind of night.
Thus ends the three-week round-robin featuring the Patriots, Jets, and Dolphins. Right now the Jets have the bragging rights by virtue of their victory over the Patriots. But their 3-1s both look the same in the standings. Anyway, the Patriots won’t win any more games in this fashion. When they take the field two weeks hence against the Ravens, they might actually need a little offense.