Monday, December 8, 2003

Patriots 12, Dolphins 0 (12/7/2003)

You know, shutting out the Cowboys was one thing, but keeping the Dolphins and all their offensive talent off the scoreboard is even more impressive. The Patriots defense came up big again this week, and on the strength of that defense, they are 11-2, Eastern Division Champions (guaranteed at least one home playoff game), and the #1 seed in the AFC (with the Kansas City loss to Denver that I know you all hoped and prayed for).

Pardon me while I take two paragraphs to rant about the Dolphins. This is the fourth consecutive year the Dolphins were supposed to prove they could win in cold climate late in the year, and they don't look likely to improve on the past three (they've finished the last three years with two wins and two losses each year). Ricky Williams is always running with confidence until he faces a decent running defense. And with the three Teds (Washington, Johnson, and Bruschi) and Rodney Harrison, the Patriots run defense is a lot better than decent. They are dominant, and showed it again Sunday.

Sure, the weather was frightful but that's supposed to mean more emphasis on running. Well, Ricky finished with 68 yards and a 2.7 yards-per-carry average And with Jay Fiedler's 13-of-31 for 111 yards and two INTs (and a paltry 1.8 yards per pass attempt), it becomes obvious why they bageled the scoreboard. I'm amazed they were 4-18 in third-down conversions, because I can't recally any conversions at all. The Dolphins didn't have a single "goal to go" situation and their only trip inside the Pats 20 ended with a Fiedler fumble. Oh, and special mention goes to the Dolphin receivers, who must have dropped eight or ten catchable passes. Way to shake off those elements, guys.

Now that the ranting is over, on to the good stuff. Rodney Harrison was an absolute monster on Sunday. He led the team with 12 tackles, defensed at least three passes, and had a critical sack that caused the Fiedler fumble and shifted momentum to our favor. The Pats didn't play as much tight coverage as I thought they would, choosing instead to attack the line to stop Miami's running game while playing a zone behind the pass rush. Worked pretty well. And later in the game, the Pats started bringing in the bigger guys on first down to bottle things up even more. And the Dolphins rarely if ever changed to passing plays in the face of a stacked deck against the run. They'd obviously decided Fiedler wasn't going to win it, and thought Ricky was their only hope. In fact, they might have been right. When Fiedler finally tried to win it, he gave the Patriots their only TD when he threw it right to Tedy Bruschi who returned it for six points.

With such a dominant defensive performance, you might expect a bigger margin of victory. But the Dolphin defense did just about the things same to the Patriots. They covered well and stuffed the run most of the day. But the Pats offense avoided what the Dolphins offense couldn't - the big turnover. Tom Brady was once again Mr. Efficient, throwing no interceptions in 31 attempts (and there weren't any really close calls either). He made good decisions and his three sacks went for only 13 yards, very important in a field position type of game (Jay Fiedler was sacked 5 times for 48 yards). There were some dropped passes, and more importantly, there were those crucial, timely throw-aways when nothing was open. The Patriot offense never really got untracked, but they didn't get undone the way the Dolphin offense did, and that was good enough to win.

Richard Seymour played a bit in the offensive backfield, taking the place of the injured Dan Klecko. The results were mixed, with one first down, two runs stuffed, and one illegal motion call. Deion Branch had some critical catches down the stretch to change our field position game, and Antowain Smith made some clutch hard-nosed runs to put the game on ice (so to speak).
Those famous Patriot screen passes and quick outs to the wide receivers were stymied by the team speed and great preparation of the Dolphins defense. I don't recall a single screen gaining positive yardage, and the quick outs were mostly incomplete or short gains. This really hurt the Patriots on third down, where they were only 5-18 for the game. If they play deep into the playoffs without improving their running game, you can look for more games like this because everyone in the playoffs will have good defensive speed. Let's just hope everyone is as offensively inept as the Dolphins - then we'll be fine.

On special teams, Bethel Johnson didn't get to return any kickoffs. Miami only kicked off once, and it went to Kevin Faulk. The new punter did a good job, only one shank job and some nice kicks into the wind. The Pats downed five kicks inside the 20 yard line, and one of those was Brady's punt on a fourth-down fake (perhaps the play of the game - until Bruschi's TD!). Adam got another one in the snow, though he missed one later on, so we can't conclude much about the new holder situation. Nothing spectactular here, just some good solid play by the coverage teams and a decent job by the new punter (Brooks Barnard, #8 on your scorecard).

So, where does this leave us? Well, 11-2 with a guaranteed home playoff game and (at present) the Number One seed in the AFC ain't bad. We play another Florida team next week (a quick "thank you" to the schedule makers). Jacksonville is coming off a big win against a division opponent, 27-0 over Houston. This couldn't be better for the Pats, because Jax has won only four games all year, and will likely have a letdown against a non-divisional team on the road in the cold a week after they had a big divisional win. No guarantees - after all, that's why we watch the games - but it looks good for the Pats.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "Man, is Dave Wannstedt in trouble. If he doesn't win a playoff game, he's probably gone, and if the season ended today, the Dolphins wouldn't even be in the playoffs. And he's gotta play a hot Philly team, then go on the road to play Buffalo in the freezing cold, and then they've go the Jets at home, where NY always plays them tough. I mean, they've got a shot to lose all three and finish the year at .500, never mind making the playoffs." (Note: Dave Wannstedt is the Head Coach of the Dolphins.)

Keep the faith,

- Scott

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