GREAT WAY TO START

It was a game plan that almost worked to perfection. Get out to an early lead to quiet the crowd. Done. Throw some big passes. Done. Harass Eddie George. Done. Force Steve McNair into some ill-advised throws. Done. Win the battle of special teams. Done.<P> Indeed, it was a well-done performance by the Dolphins as they won their 10th straight opener by thrashing the Titans 31-23.<P>

"So they're supposed to be the Super Bowl champs, huh?" asked defensive tackle Daryl Gardener.

You wouldn't have known it the way the Dolphins dismantled them. It was only the third loss ever suffered by the Titans at Adelphia Coliseum — and the most points ever scored against them there.

There were so many huge plays and pivotal moments for the Dolphins:

• A beautiful nine-play, 88-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter gave them a 10-0 lead, rookie Chris Chambers providing the big play with a diving 36-yard catch.

• After the Titans cut the lead to 10-7 on a touchdown return off a Lamar Smith fumble, the Dolphins came right back on two huge passes from Jay Fiedler to Oronde Gadsden, first covering 31 yards and then 23 yards for the score.

• A 65-yard catch-and-run by Smith gave the Dolphins a 24-7 lead with 5:56 left in the third quarter. It was a play the Dolphins had never run before using Smith — a running back lined up wide catching the type of screen pass normally termed a "flanker screen." Smith caught the pass, put on a spin move at the line that left Jevon Kearse frozen in his tracks, and then rambled down the center of the field for the score.

"What a great call," said tight end Hunter Goodwin. "I watched Lamar catch the ball and I couldn't believe what he did. The next thing I know I'm running my big butt down the field trying to help."

• A 34-yard interception return for a touchdown by Zach Thomas gave the Dolphins a 31-14 lead and, from there, they simply held on.

"This was as good a football game as we've played since I've been here," said guard Mark Dixon, in his fourth season with the team.

Sure, there were some lowlights. There were times when Tennessee receivers had too much open space, especially Derrick Mason on his 29-yard touchdown catch. Smith should have done a better job protecting the ball on his fumble that resulted in a Tennessee touchdown. There was poor protection on a Turk punt that was partially blocked. The offense needed to put together some more first downs in the fourth quarter.

But why be picky? The last time the Dolphins had such an impressive opening-game road victory was when they went to Denver in 1999 and beat the two-time defending Super Bowl champions by a 38-21 score.

Said Dixon, "I felt that game was fool's gold because they didn't have Elway anymore and were going through that change. I feel a lot better about this one."


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