FOXBORO — The game-winning play began innocuously enough.
With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, the Patriots trailed 17-16. Miami had just ground out a spirit-sapping drive, a 10:09 sequence that took 16 plays and consumed 66 yards and ended in a 1-yard Wildcat touchdown pass from Ronnie Brown to Joey Haynos. Now, New England had to answer, or face heading into the fourth quarter of a key division game trailing in its own place.
The Patriots had the ball at their own 29-yard-line, and were in a third-and-1. Randy Moss was split wide right, but as quarterback Tom Brady called out the signals, Moss slowly came in motion to the left. As the ball was snapped, Brady went into a three-step drop and saw Moss in man coverage with rookie cornerback Vontae Davis over the middle.
Brady hit Moss in stride, and he was gone.
Well, not exactly gone. The receiver had a step on Davis, but a crushing stiff-arm gave him the separation he needed to take it the distance for the touchdown that would eventually be the difference. While it will go into the books as a 71-yard touchdown, Moss ended up taking it the final 61 yards for the score, high-stepping a portion of the way to avoid fallen defensive backs on the way to the end zone.
It was the game-winning touchdown in the 27-17 contest (check out the full game recap here) that put New England squarely in command of the AFC East with half a season in the books.
“Everyone did what they had to do, and 71 yards later, it was a touchdown,” said Moss, who finished with six catches for 147 yards and a touchdown. “You really have to commend all 11 guys, because I’ve said once before, if you’ve got 11 guys working together, anything is possible. That’s what we tried to do there is just execute on offense and everybody did everything right on that play, and you saw the results.”
“That’s like getting stabbed in the heart right there,” Patriots guard Logan Mankins said of New England’s answer, which took three plays and went for 80 yards in just 1:36. “You grind it out for like 10 minutes and finally score, and then in like a minute and a half we come right back.”
While the touchdown was impressive, it was the way Moss reached the end zone that was interesting. Usually known as a traditional deep threat who stretches the field, this time he made a big play with his feet and his hands. He made a great reception on the run almost underneath, then used the stiff-arm to get some distance between himself and the blocker. He high-stepped to maintain the distance between himself and the defender and then pull away from the defenders. The whole sequence was a reminder that Moss can be the whole package in a receiver.
“Being able to stiff-arm that guy and then get his legs up, he’s a savvy player and knows when players are around,” teammate Wes Welker said. “And he was able to turn that into a big play for us where we needed an answer, and he really came through on that.”
“It’s always nice for a quarterback when you see the back of 81 sprinting down the field once he gets by them,” said Brady, who went 25-for-37 for 332 yards with one touchdown and one interception on the day. “There are not too many guys that can catch him.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSIVE LINE IS CAPABLE OF MAKING JOEY PORTER AND JASON TAYLOR DISAPPEAR
There was an occasional rogue rusher who busted through and made life difficult for Brady, but the Patriots offensive line did an excellent job of keeping the Miami pass rush at bay on Sunday. The New England quarterback had plenty of time to operate, and the only time he turned the ball over was because of an excellent defensive play by Vontae Davis.
Brady was sacked twice (Randy Starks and Cameron Wake got him once each), but the traditional nemeses that have plagued New England since the earth cooled — namely, Joey Porter and Jason Taylor — were nowhere to be seen on Sunday. Taylor had three tackles and Porter had none.
Rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer — who was flagged for two holding penalties last time out against Tampa Bay — had a good afternoon. Thanks to some help from fellow tackle Mark LeVoir, who checked into the game on several occasions as an extra blocking tight end, Vollmer and the Patriots were able to keep Brady’s blind side protected.
“He’s a great football player,” Vollmer said of Porter. “I just tried to play well and execute. Everything else, we’ll see on film. We did a lot of things. I don’t know how many plays we ran with different blocking schemes, but there were times when Mark helped.”
“I thought Tom had good time to throw,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We got hit a couple of times, but that was more when we held the ball and the coverage was there as opposed to just breakdowns in the protection.”
IN THE END, PORTER WAS REDUCED TO A HOLLOW SIDESHOW
The Miami linebacker got himself and the rest of the football world all cranked up for this one as he proclaimed his “hate” for the Patriots, but in the end he failed to deliver. He did not speak with most of the media afterward, but did talk to Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Porter said the Dolphins were unable to get any sort of sustained pass rush on Brady, which, in the end, was their undoing.
“As a team we got pressure on them,” Porter told Kelly, referring to the two sacks the Dolphins got on Brady, “But not enough! We could have made more plays out there. But it wasn't the lack of pass rush why we lost the game. We had our opportunities to win the game. They played good, were ready for us and beat us.
“We didn’t get this one, but now we've got to focus on what it takes to get to 4-5. This is another setback we’ve got to take, and get over. We won 11 games last year, and a lot of them in the second half. We just have to do that again. All we can do is get ready for Tampa.”
THE OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS ARE STARTING TO HIT THEIR STRIDE
Tully Banta-Cain was extremely active on the afternoon, bringing a lot of pressure on Henne and ending up with three quarterback hits and one tackle for a loss. Opposite Banta-Cain, Adalius Thomas also had one of his finest games of the season on Sunday. He was extremely active in coverage, batted down a pass and added an 11-yard sack on a broken end-around play.
Thomas finished with four tackles, two of them for a loss, and was pretty much the same sort of linebacker he was for chunks of the 2007 and 2008 seasons, when opposing offensive coordinators had to take his presence into account every time he was on the field.
But after the game, what busted him up the most was the fact that a fumble return for a touchdown was called back — it was ruled an incomplete pass on a Banta-Cain hit on Chad Henne that knocked the ball loose.
“I was heartbroken. I was trying to get the field goal kicked and everything as fast as possible,” Thomas said. “It’s not often that a defensive player gets the ball in his hands, so when you do, you want to take advantage of it and get the points on the board and help the team win.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE STARTING TO GAIN SOME SEPARATION IN THE RACE FOR THE AFC EAST TITLE
With the victory, New England moves to 6-2 on the season — a full two games ahead of the idle Jets — and really delivers a deathblow to the Dolphins' chances of repeating as AFC East champions. (Technically, the Dolphins remain alive, but their margin for error is now impossibly slim.) The Dolphins and Bills are tied for third with an identical 3-5 mark.
“Those are important games to win,” Mankins said of the division games. “If you just look at last year, we lost a lot of those games, and that’s why we were home in January.”
JEROD MAYO IS CONTINUING TO SET THE STANDARD FOR YOUNG INSIDE/MIDDLE LINEBACKERS THROUGHOUT THE NFL
Jerod Mayo may believe he’s still working his way back to full strength after a knee injury in the season-opener, but don’t tell the rest of the league that.
The second-year linebacker out of Tennessee was all over the field Sunday against the Dolphins, working well in coverage and doing plenty to hold the Wildcat in check. He was injured late in the third quarter and was sidelined for a single play before returning, and he ended the day with a season- and game-high 12 tackles.
“He’s a great, great player. Stops the run. Can play the pass. That’s what a great linebacker does. Mayo is a great player,” teammate Brandon McGowan said. “Whenever you have a guy like that in front of us, you feel more comfortable.”
Mayo had a number of big plays Sunday against the Dolphins, but he was at his best when he was able to shoot the gap and take down Brown on a key fourth-quarter tackle, leaving the Miami running back with a 2-yard loss. The drive ended with Miami turning the ball over on downs.
“It just was a check that we had, and fortunately, I was able to get through,” Mayo said. “I’m not sure what kind of game I had, but at the same time, the defense did an excellent job, the guys up front kind of kept me clean for the whole game. [And] we got the 'W.' ”
Mayo injured his right knee in the season-opener against the Bills and did not return to game action until an Oct. 11 loss to the Broncos in Denver. Mayo, who has a legendarily high pain threshold, said returning from the injury is still a work in progress, but he is getting better every week.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time. The training staff is still working with me,” Mayo said. “Like I said, just taking it one day at a time.”
THE WILDCAT IS NOT THE SUPER-SCARY OFFENSIVE POWERHOUSE IT WAS AT THIS TIME LAST SEASON
The traditional Wildcat didn’t put much of a dent in the New England defense this year. By my count, Miami ran 10 plays out of the traditional Wildcat set — that is, with Brown or Ricky Williams in shotgun. The Dolphins got seven yards and one touchdown out of it. Their best play was a 12-yard carry from Williams, and the worst was an 11-yard loss on a reverse to Henne that was scored a sack.
Miami did end up using it over the course of a handful of goal-line plays late in the third quarter and was unable to generate much of a ground game as a result. They did get one score out of it — a 1-yard pass from Brown to Haynos toward the end of the third quarter that put Miami up 17-16.
But when Brown or Williams moved into shotgun formation, there wasn’t nearly the same level of concern as there was the year before. No worries. We’ve seen this before. Time to adjust.
“Last year we panicked,” safety Brandon Meriweather said of the difference between last season and this season. “We didn’t stay focused and we were all over the place. This year we were more like a veteran team. We stayed calm, listened to the coaches and let the coaches coach and the players play.”
THAT BEING SAID, IT TOOK THE PATRIOTS A LITTLE WHILE TO GET ADJUSTED TO SOME OF THE WRINKLES OFFERED UP BY THE DOLPHINS
While the standard-issue Wildcat was definitely slowed by the Patriots — who did a great job maintaining gap discipline — when backup quarterback Pat White was in the game, the Dolphins offered a new scheme in the second quarter, using White as an option quarterback.
Miami was able to gain some serious yardage with that look, especially midway through the second when, on one play, Banta-Cain had to choose between White and the option. Banta-Cain chose wrong, and White was off to the races. Thirty-three yards later, the Patriots knew Miami had introduced a new aspect to their unique offensive scheme.
Four plays after that, White pitched the ball to Williams on another option play, and the Dolphins had tied the game at 10. But there was no panic like last season. Instead, Belichick quickly called the defense together on the sidelines, and, according to McGowan, gave the players a very simple direction: tackle.
“We just didn’t play the option very well. We worked on it and then it happened probably a little faster than we practiced it, and once we got it adjusted, I thought they did a good job,” Belichick said. “The option, we worked on it, but not quite as they ran it. We just had a couple of missed assignments and White ran well.”
Unlike last year, this time the Patriots were able to diagnose and fix the problem, but not before White ended the day with 45 yards rushing. According to Williams, one of the adjustments the Patriots made was that they brought the outside linebacker up to the line “to not let our tight end get off to the middle linebacker.”
Williams said the adjustment made all the difference.
“They made an adjustment and we just didn’t handle it,” Williams said. “We were ready for it but we didn’t execute. We changed the blocking scheme but we didn’t do a good job executing.”
THE PATRIOTS KICK RETURN UNIT IS IMPROVING
One week after Dolphins kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. crushed the Jets with touchdown returns of 100 and 101 yards and 299 return yards on the day, the Patriots were able to limit the Miami return man to four returns for 97 yards.
Ginn’s longest was a 37-yarder that was taken four yards in the Dolphins’ end zone. Miami’s best field position after a kick return was its own 34-yard line. On the day, the Dolphins’ average start came at their own 22-yard-line.
“I think that those guys did a pretty solid job,” Belichick said of his kick return unit. “Of course, we got good kicking. The ball was hung up there pretty well on both punts and kickoffs. Our guys ran hard, tackled hard. I think we had some good hits down there. Not just covering, but also we had some pretty solid hits in the tackling area.”
“It’s just a good day for special teams when you can contain a guy like that, especially with him coming off a week like [last week],” kicker Stephen Gostkowski said. “Just to get the win, it feels pretty good.”
Special teams captain Sam Aiken stressed all New England needed to do was to maintain the level of discipline it had employed over the last few weeks — New England’s average yards allowed on each return has decreased steadily from 31.8 yards per kick return in Week 2 to 17.7 yards per return in Week 7 — and the Patriots would be successful. Aiken was right, as Ginn never got started on Sunday.
“He still got too many yards,” Aiken said of Ginn.
Of course, the kick coverage unit was helped by a great performance from Gostkowski. The kicker, who had 13 touchbacks entering the game, delivered two first-half touchbacks, including one on a re-kick after a penalty at the end of the second quarter that left the Patriots’ sideline smiling.
“It was pretty cool,” Gostkowski said. “I was pretty upset that one got called back. But then, everyone was like, ‘Just do it again,’ and I said, ‘All right. I’ll try.’ ”
“We had a re-kick, and they always say that nothing good comes out of a re-kick, especially when you’re offsides,” Aiken said. “And he did the same thing. He has a great leg. A Pro Bowl kicker.”
IT’S TIME TO KICK START THE HYPE MACHINE
The 6-2 Patriots and 8-0 Colts will meet Sunday night in Indianapolis in a contest that could likely go a long way in deciding who is going to end up with one of the top two seeds in the AFC playoff picture. As the second half of the season gets under way, the winner of this game will have the early edge in the race to get that first-round playoff bye, so key for so many teams at the start of the postseason.
New England’s offense enters the game on a high, having scored an average of 40 points in its last three games, while the Indianapolis defense is reeling after the losses of key defensive players such as Bob Sanders and Marlin Jackson. On the other hand, the Patriots defense will have to face Indy quarterback Peyton Manning — who is the first-half MVP — and receivers such as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, the latter of whom caught 14 passes on Sunday against Houston.
“They’re licking their chops next week,” NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said of the Patriots Sunday night. “As terrific as the Colts offense is, look at their defense. They have two rookie cornerbacks starting. So Moss and Brady are very excited about that matchup.”
“I think the one thing about that game is you’ve got to play a great game to win. You can’t go out there and play your B game, because you won’t beat those guys. They’re good,” Brady said, offering his first take on the week ahead.
“They can rush the passer. They cover. Obviously, they can score a lot of points. They run it, they throw it, they have very good special teams, so we’ve got to match them. We’ve got to do the same thing and this year on the road, you know, we’ve had a couple of good first halves and not so good of second halves, so we’re going to need to play a four-quarter game.”