Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Patriots 20, Dolphins 10 (10/8/2006)

On a day that started with me scraping ice off my windshield and ended with me getting a sunburn, the Patriots played a hot-and-cold game and came away with a 20-10 win over the Miami Dolphins. The win brings them into the bye week at 4-1, with a two-game lead in the division and victories over every other AFC East foe.

At the end of the game, a lot of the statistics looked even, but the Pats cashed in all three turnovers for 17 of their 20 points. Miami had an 80 yard touchdown drive but didn’t have another drive of more than 50 yards. And if you don’t get turnovers and can’t drive a long field, it’s going to be a long day.

The player of the game was Asante Samuel, who had two interceptions that set up fourteen easy points and six solo tackles to tie Chad Scott for the team lead. With Ellis Hobbs mostly MIA and Eugene Wilson out again, the secondary played pretty well, with Rodney Harrison forcing a fumble and continuing his improvement from last year’s injured knee.

But the story of the defense was the defensive line. They used a rotation system to keep the players fresh on a hot day, and they just dominated. When he was on the field, Vince Wilfork had a Pro Bowl level game, blowing up just about every running play before it even started making an unusually high six tackles from the nose guard position. Ty Warren and Richard Seymour continued to play excellent gap control; Jarvis Green got another sack (he now leads the team with 4.5 on the year) and Mike Wright even pitched in to keep the pressure on while his teammates rested. They notched only the one sack, but the line pressured the QB enough to force quick throws for short gains (allowing only 5.3 yards per pass play).

The linebackers did well, with Bruschi’s ten total tackles leading the team. They rotated linebackers, too, which gave Don Davis and Eric Alexander more snaps. But I expected more from Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau. It might have been the quick passing of the Dolphins, but both of them seems a step slow at times. Fortunately for the Patriots, the Dolphins are still the Dolphins, with some dropped passes, some penalties, and a poor offensive game plan.

The offense… ummmm, they didn’t pass the ball well or run the ball well… but aside from that everything was fine. Troy Brown was the best receiver on this day, with 5 catches for 58 yards and an important touchdown. Ben Watson turned a 4-yard catch into a 9-yard gain on third-and-eight, and he had two crucial catches as the Pats were winding down the clock. And that was about it in the passing game. Brady missed some receivers high or low, and a bunch of his passes were knocked down at the line (I counted six). His weekly injury status of “Probable – shoulder injury” might not be subterfuge after all; I suspect he might have just such an injury.

Now, if the Patriots want to save Brady the trouble of throwing all the time, they have to run the ball better. They had only 79 yards on 34 carries, and rookie Laurence Maroney looked like a rookie this week. At least Corey Dillon (10 rushes for 45 yards) could make a few yards when the running lanes were clogged; Maroney averaged only 2.1 yards a carry and didn’t have a catch all day. Miami does have a good running defense; but the Patriots O-line didn’t open nearly enough holes or get a decent push off the ball. All-in-all, a day to forget.

But even with the offensive problems, they took advantage of the short field when the defense got turnovers. Their scoring drives averaged 30 yards, with three coming after Dolphin turnovers. And that was good enough to win by 10 points.

The special teams were also hot-and-cold. They blocked an Olindo Mare field goal attempt and tackled the punter with the ball later in the game. But Kevin Faulk gave Miami their only turnover when he fumbled a punt late in the game Then again, rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski didn’t miss any field goals this week. That’s progress, right?

So where does all that leave us. Well, the Pats are on their way to their fourth straight division crown. They are tied for the third-best record in the NFL (tied with five other teams, sure, but still tied) in a division where every other team is below .500. They’ve got a bye week and then their toughest stretch of the season, with road games in Buffalo and Minnesota and then a home game against Indy (why, oh why, do the Colts always seem to play us here?). So things are looking bright and sunny for the time being. I'll write up some mid-season observations for next week, and then we'll see how they do coming out of the bye week.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: “Tell me again why the Dolphins were supposed to be Super Bowl bound. They beat five cupcake teams to end last season, and they have a new QB and a new offensive system for the third straight year. I mean, they lost to Cleveland 22-0 last year… how could anyone think they were good?”

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 4-1!

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