MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The stadium was about half-full when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass in the shadow of his own goalposts with just under six minutes the fourth quarter Monday night. During a steamy South Florida night, Brady had already accounted for more than 400 passing yards and silenced a once-rowdy crowd that had promised to hoot the Patriots back to New England.
Shuffling into his own end zone, he spotted wide receiver Wes Welker flying down the Miami sidelines. As was the case all night, Brady got plenty of time to get his feet set, find a receiver and deliver the football. And so, the quarterback took a step back and let fly, hitting Welker in full stride. The receiver shook off Miami defensive back Benny Sapp and took it 99 yards, making it 38-17 -- with a singular lightning bolt, the Patriots had turned the game from a two-score contest into a three-score affair, effectively ending any shot the Dolphins had at beating New England.
In the end, the Patriots won, 38-24 (click here for the complete recap), but long after the final score is forgotten, the 99-yard pass play to Welker will serve as the closing statement at the end of one of the greatest performances in NFL history. Brady has been thunderously efficient before -- most fall weekends in 2007, he and Randy Moss routinely toyed with opposing defenses, and his performance last November against the Steelers remains one for the record books.
But this was Brady on a different level. He got an awful lot of help from a dangerously thin offensive line (more on those guys later), as well as a superior effort from young tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (more on them later as well). It wasn’t the shock and awe performance that we all got used to during the 2007 season. Instead, this was death by a thousand cuts: Against Miami, Brady was incredibly efficient all night, using all this options in the passing game to put together a performance for the ages, going 32-for-48 and throwing for 517 yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback set a franchise record with 517 passing yards, and became the 10th NFL quarterback to throw for 500 yards or more. (His 517 yards are the fifth highest in NFL history.)
The message? Nice job, Cam Newton. Excellent opening act, Aaron Rodgers. But you might want to check out these numbers.
“We had good protection. We got a lot of production out of our receivers. Tom did a great job throwing the ball. So it was a good complimentary game,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “We ran the ball effectively, enough to keep them honest. It was no one-man band out there. We had a lot of contributions from everybody, and that’s what a good offensive team should do. We should be good across the board.”
No, it wasn’t a one-man band, but Brady is a pretty good lead singer who can also play the guitar, bass and drums. He threw short passes. He threw long passes. He went over the middle. He went sideline to sideline. He completed passes of 99, 46, 30, 24 and 23 yards to five different receivers, and ended up with completions to eight different receivers. Welker had eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns, while Hernandez had seven catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.
“It was a good night in the sense that I thought we executed pretty well at times,” he said. “It’s a team sport and those guys were catching the ball and making some great plays. There were a lot of tough looks out there that we got, and the guys really stayed aware of the situation. We made enough plays to win, and that’s the goal.”
It left the Dolphins muttering to themselves.
“He hung 500 yards. Who gives a damn?” asked Miami defensive end Jason Taylor. “There’s next week. If you want to write a story about Tom Brady throwing for 500 yards, feel free. Congrats. He did a great job.”
Here are nine other things we learned Monday night in South Florida:
TEAMS WILL STRUGGLE TO MATCH UP WITH NEW ENGLAND’S TIGHT ENDS THIS SEASON
As rookies, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were good last year, eventually growing into a role where they became important members of the New England passing game. But on Monday night, in front of a national television audience, it was clear that this season, the Patriots have two of the brightest young offensive stars in the AFC.
Against the Dolphins, the two combined for 13 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. According to Nuggetpalooza, since 2003, only one NFL team has had more than 189 receiving yards from the tight end position (San Francisco had 203 receiving yards from their tight end against Arizona in a 2004 contest).
“They did a good job of getting them the ball in the middle and we didn’t do a very good job covering it,” said Miami coach Tony Sparano with a sigh after the game. “They made too many big plays again.”
Gronkowski had six catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. On his score -- a 10-yard reception that gave New England its first lead of the night early in the second quarter -- he was so astoundingly open, it was as if he has simply materialized courtesy of a puff of smoke at the Miami goal line. When Gronkowski wasn’t catching passes (including a 23-yarder late in the second quarter that almost led to another Patriots’ touchdown), he was lined up in he right hip pocket of rookie right tackle Nate Solder, helping Solder hold back sack master extraordinaire Cameron Wake.
“Rob takes a lot off me too, because he’s so dynamic. There are a lot of people who have to worry about him, and they forget about me. Sometimes they worry about me and forget about him, so that’s why it’s a great combination,” said Hernandez. “Gronkowski, he’s a beast, and everybody knows it. He’s a playmaker, and a great tight end.”
As for Hernandez, when he wasn’t making it rain -- as was the case when he celebrated after hauling in a one-yarder over the middle from Brady late in the third quarter -- he was presenting matchup nightmares for the Miami secondary, ending up with seven catches for 103 yards.
“When you have a great quarterback who puts the ball in the right spot at all times, it’s easy to make the catch,” Hernandez said. “Tight ends are used a lot in this offense, and Tom knows how to get us the ball, and that’s what he does.”
MONDAY PROBABLY ISN’T A GOOD INDICATION OF HOW THE PATRIOTS WILL USE ALBERT HAYNESWORTH GOING FORWARD
Astute Tweeter @Quotesfromthe6 suggests that the Patriots keep a running tally this season of holding calls drawn by defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The defensive tackle picked up two on Monday night in limited action, frustrating veteran guard Richie Incognito to the point where he threw up his hands after the second call.
There were no sacks for No. 92, but he did have two tackles and was a general nuisance when he was in there for the Miami offensive line. On one play early in the fourth quarter, Haynesworth plowed over Incognito and grabbed a handful of Henne’s jersey, spinning him to the ground.
“It felt like football. It felt good. It felt good to be on the field. It felt good to get a victory in the first game. It was also felt good for our offense to score a lot of points and save the defense,” said Haynesworth after the game. “It’s always good to feel needed. It always feels good to get out there and play and earn my check this season.”
With all the rotational work in the South Florida heat, the game probably isn’t a real good indication of how the Patriots plan to use him going forward. But in the brief stretches he was on the field, he was dominant against a veteran lineman like Incognito, thanks in part to the fact that New England kept shuffling their defensive linemen out there all evening.
“It helped great,” said Haynesworth when asked about the rotational work. “I felt like I was still in the first half when I was out there rushing, so ... like I said, we have defensive tackles here that can play and start at any other team. We have a great rotation here.
“And also, when you have a quarterback like Tom Brady making it look easy and scoring points, and then, the pressure was on them to have to score points, and it made it a one-dimensional game where they were just going to pass, we could just pin our ears back and take off.”
THE PATRIOTS BEAT THE HEAT BY DOING A LOT OF ROTATIONAL WORK
In the days leading up to the game, Miami coach Tony Sparano lamented the fact that it wasn’t a one o’clock start, with the reasoning that the Patriots wouldn’t be used to the South Florida heat.
“Playing a game at 7 o’clock at night, it’ll be hot for both teams,” Sparano said. “But it won’t be 1 o’clock hot.”
But it turned out it was the Dolphins who weren’t ready for the sultry Miami conditions, while New England managed to stay fresh all night long, thanks to a rotational system where they shuffled several bodies in and out of the game at key positions throughout the evening.
New England did a lot of shuffling all night at several spots, but the positions that really stood out were defensive line (where they didn’t have the same combinations on any of their defensive series’ throughout the first half), linebacker (Dane Fletcher and Gary Guyton worked in and out and linebacker, although that could be because of Guyton’s early struggles against the run) and offensive line (where Brian Waters and Dan Connolly combined at right guard before Koppen’s injury forced Waters to play right guard and Connolly to work at center the rest of the night).
“That played a huge factor,” said Wilfork of the fresh legs and rotational work. “Having a lot of bodies and being able to move on and off the field and being able to rest some guys helped us.”
Regardless of who had fresher bodies in the fourth quarter, the days of Miami grinding down their opponents in the early season heat appear to be a thing of the past. (Remember the pre-2003 days when the Patriots wilted in the South Florida sun down the stretch? No more.) When the game was on the line, it was the Patriots who had the fresher legs on both sides of the ball, and as a result, carried the play with the game on the line late in the third quarter and into the fourth.
“Heat always plays a factor, on both sides of the ball, and you could see it tonight,” he added. “Weather is always going to play a factor, but one thing we try to get into is that we aren’t playing the weather, we’re playing the Miami Dolphins. You can’t fight the weather, but it is what it is. The only thing you can do is prepare for it, hydrate and keep your mind off it, but with a lot of bodies that we have around here and a lot of people playing tonight, it kept us a little fresher. And we haven’t had that in the past, but we have it now, so we’re going to use it to our advantage.”
ASIDE FROM MIAMI’S OPENING DRIVE, THE PATRIOTS CONTROLLED THE TEMPO. AS A RESULT, THEY CONTROLLED THE GAME
New England wasn’t exactly in a full-court press for much of the night, but the Patriots offense was constantly pushing the tempo and keeping the Miami defense on its heels. New England spent most of the game in a no-huddle, and the quick pace of things (as well as the fact that Miami appeared unprepared when it came to dealing with the heat) played into the Patriots’ favor. On one play, the Miami defense was simply catching its breath when Brady snapped the ball and completed a 9-yard pass to Branch while surprised Miami defenders chased after him.
The Dolphins maintained they had prepared for the possibility of the Patriots’ increased tempo, as coach Tony Sparano maintained they “practiced it a ton” over the last week, while defensive end Jason Taylor echoed the words of his coach.
“We were prepared for it,” Taylor said. “We knew it. It was no mystery at all.”
“It’s a fine line between putting pressure on a defense and playing out of control. I thought at times we did both, and you never really want to play out of control on offense. It was a good pace at times, but other times, they adjusted to it,” Brady said. “Sometimes we go fast and sometimes, we go slow. It’s just a matter of what the point of the drive is, and how we’re trying to execute. We’re ultimately trying to get the ball in the end zone.”
ALL THE CONCERN ABOUT DEION BRANCH NOT CATCHING A BALL IN THE PRESEASON MEANT NOTHING
The veteran went all four games in the preseason without a reception, causing open speculation that he was on the outs in New England. Turns out, it really didn’t mean a thing, as Branch ended the opener with seven catches for 93 yards, including some key grabs that kept the chains moving early in the second half when the game was still in doubt.
Branch was at his best early in the second half. With just over 13 minutes left in the third quarter, a Brady pass for Julian Edelman was tipped and scooped up by Miami’s Jared Odrick. (The pick was the first regular-season interception for Brady in 358 consecutive pass attempts, an NFL record.) It looked like Odrick had a clear path to the end zone, but Branch pulled off a nifty Ben Watson impression, racing 40 or so yards and hauling Odrick down from behind at the New England nine-yard line. (Branch’s race went for naught, however, as the Dolphins punched it in two plays later.)
On the following series, the Brady-to-Branch combo looked like something straight out of 2004. On a third-and-1, Brady hit him with a short pass for six that gave the Patriots a first down. Two plays later, it was a 13-yarder to Branch. Next play, it was a 20-yarder over the middle that put New England inside the Miami 10. Three plays later, Brady hit Welker for his first touchdown of the night, making it 21-14. The Patriots never trailed again.
THE ASSIMILATION OF CHAD OCHOCINCO INTO THE NEW ENGLAND PASSING GAME REMAINS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco saw limited action. He was targeted three times and caught one pass, a 14-yarder late in the first half where Brady found him on the left side and fired one in there. (Ochocinco collected the ball before darting out of bounds in hopes of stopping the clock -- the play was challenged by the replay assistant, but eventually ruled a catch.) He was flagged for an illegal formation in the first half, wiping up a 41-yard pass play from Brady to Gronkowski.
It’s hard to read too much into what Monday night means for No. 85 -- the Patriots were using a no-huddle for much of the evening, and as a result, Brady frequented targets he felt the most comfortable with. In the end, the quick tempo and no-huddle (and lack of snaps for Ochocinco) is a likely indication that he and the team are not be completely comfortable with where he is in the offense as of yet.
THE BATTLES BETWEEN THE PATRIOTS CORNERBACKS AND MIAMI WIDE RECEIVERS WERE SOME OF THE BEST OF THE NIGHT
Devin McCourty and his collection of cornerbacks (including rookie Ras-I Dowling, who got the start for the Patriots in his NFL debut) went head-to-head with Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess and Brian Hartline, and were some of the best positional battles of a game that started to get out of hand for the Dolphins in the third quarter.
The best sequence came when the Dolphins were down 21-14 midway through the third quarter. Facing a second-and-14 from the New England 29, Miami quarterback Chad Henne went deep down the Patriots’ sideline for Marshall. With McCourty in coverage, Marshall came away with the ball, but not after a real battle with McCourty. (Marshall hung on to the ball like a beast, frankly.) That got Miami down to the New England one. Two plays later, Henne tried to go back to Marshall, but the ball was knocked away by McCourty, who nearly picked it off if safety Patrick Chung didn’t knock it away from him. And that was followed by a third-down laser to Marshall on the goal-line, but that ball was knocked away by Dowling, who prevented Marshall from backing into the end zone. Just a real impressive series on both sides of the ball.
“It was a battle,” said McCourty, who ended up with a team-high 11 tackles, including one for a loss, and two passes defensed. “Going against Marshall and how they targeted him throughout the game and trying to throw to him and give him a chance to make plays, it was definitely the toughest battle I’ve had in my very short, short career.”
As for Dowling, he was on the field at the start and prevented Marshall from scoring what would have been a game-tying score. And with the Dolphins angling to get back into the game (they were down 31-17 midway through the fourth), Miami tried to go after Dowling on a key fourth-and-goal play from the one. Henne floated one out to Hartline in the corner (over Dowling), but the quarterback and receiver couldn’t make a connection, and the ball missed its target.
It wasn’t the finest hour for the New England defense (Henne finished with a remarkable 416 yards passing, and the Dolphins racked up 488 yards of their own, their most since gaining 490 against Cincinnati in 1995), but in the end, they were able to make the plays when it counted -- the Patriots held Miami to 2-for-14 on third downs -- and come away with a win they could feel good about.
“It was a hard-fought game,” McCourty said. “Both sides were competing and both teams were going back and forth trying to make plays. It was a big-time division game and it was back-and-forth. They would make a stand defensively and make a touchdown. Then, we would make a touchdown and they would get a stop. It was a lot of back-and-forth, and that’s what we expected. We knew they were going to come ready to play.”
THE WORST THING TO HAPPEN TO THE PATRIOTS ON MONDAY NIGHT WAS THE LOSS OF DAN KOPPEN
If things are as bad as they initially appeared, it looks like the Patriots are going to be without their starting center for the foreseeable future. With New England driving at the end of the first half, center Dan Koppen had his left leg rolled up on, and was clearly in pain when he was down on the field for an extended stretch. He was carted off, and was seen on the sidelines late in the game with a boot on his left leg.
“That’s tough. He’s the best and there’s no one like him,” Brady said. “I think he and I have a great chemistry between the two of us. We always have, and he’s one of my great friends. Hopefully he’s back at some point. We’re certainly going to miss him, but at the same time, other guys have to step in and do the job. I think that’s part of what this game is all about -- other guys stepping in when they’re called upon and executing just as if he was in there. Hopefully, we get him back at some point.”
The Patriots do have some contingencies at the position -- they ended the game with Dan Connolly at center, and if Ryan Wendell ever gets healthy, he also has experience at the position. But moving either one of them to center on a regular basis makes an already thin position (guard) even tougher for New England. That, combined with the absence of starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, could make things dicey for the offensive line this week.
All that being said, the Patriots offensive line had a very good evening as a group, keeping a team that was better than most at getting after the quarterback in 2010 away from Brady. The quarterback had ridiculous chunks of time to throw -- he had more than seven seconds to try and complete a second-quarter pass to Welker that ended up falling incomplete. The tackles -- Matt Light and Nate Solder -- got some help from Dan Gronkowski and his brother Rob, but they did a very good job keeping outside linebackers Koa Misi and Cameron Wake at bay. (Solder was flagged for holding late in the first half, and Wake broke through with his first sack of the night on the next play.)
“I think they did a great job,” Brady said of his offensive line, which held Miami to just one sack on the night. “There’s a lot of communication that goes on between the quarterback and the offensive line, and for the new guys being in there, I thought the communication was good. On the road, the first game of the year and a lot of silent counts, I thought it was great communication, and that was a great positive for tonight.”
NATE SOLDER HAD A POSITIVE START TO HIS PROFESSIONAL CAREER
The Dolphins flipped their best pass rusher Cameron Wake from the left side to the right side, hoping to maximize the matchup against the rookie making his first NFL start. And while Solder got some help from both Gronkowski’s (who were in his right hip pocket for large portions of his first half, either staying in to block or getting a chip on Wake before they started their route), it still should be considered a very good night for Solder ... with the exception of one sequence in the first half where Solder was called for holding on Wake and then followed that up with a sack on the next play.
“I just feel like I have so much to learn, going out there, I gave up a bunch of pressures and a sack, and ... there was a lot of emotions,” Solder said. “But we need Sebastian out there. He’s our starter, and we need him back as soon as possible.
“There were some jitters and things going into it, but like I said, I have so much to learn, and going in there was just a learning process -- every snap, I felt that way. And I’ll continue to learn. I want to continue to play at a better level. That’s just who I am.”
Solder, who joked about his consecutive games played streak -- “a streak of one,” he said with a smile -- acknowledged the role that right guards Brian Waters and Dan Connolly, as well as the tight ends, played in his success.
“I always get help from the tight ends and I always get help from the guards. We were playing a great defensive line and Cameron wake is a great player, so we thought that was a good idea,” Solder said. “Cameron Wake is an incredible player, and I’m just learning to play with guys like him.”