A strange game

New England coach Bill Belichick said this week he was preparing for Sunday's season finale just like another game, which made sense considering the Patriots still had a chance to move up from the No. 4 to the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs. But that's not exactly what happened on Sunday.

On the contrary, from the Patriots' standpoint, this had the feel of a preseason game -- and then some.

It was bad enough that New England used backups for pretty much the last three quarters, but Belichick took things to an entirely other level when he let Doug Flutie attempt a drop-kick after a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Flutie executed the kick to perfection and everybody on the New England sideline was terribly excited about it, but that type of play doesn't show a whole lot of respect for the Dolphins.

It also indicated the Patriots weren't exactly going all out to win this game.

Think about it, the Patriots ended up being a two-point conversion short of sending the game to overtime. Had Flutie not made the drop kick, which is not exactly a high-percentage play, they would have been down nine starting their last drive instead of eight.

When you think about it, the Dolphins actually would have every right to be furious at what New England pulled. It was almost making a mockery of the game.

Of course, we're suspecting Nick Saban is a lot more concerned about his own team than worrying about what his buddy Bill Belichick was thinking when he let Flutie have his little fun.

And the truth is we can't help but feel ho-hum about this latest Dolphins victory.

Yes, it capped a remarkable run to end the season, gave them a winning record at 9-7 and could serve as a springboard to 2006.

But, really, did the Dolphins accomplish that much in beating New England by two on Sunday.

Matt Cassel almost rallied the Pats from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit, for crying out loud. Matt Cassel. Not Tom Brady, not Flutie, but Matt Cassel.

The Dolphins put up decent yardage offensively, but the Pats also weren't using Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, but rather guys like Matt Chatham, Tully Banta-Cain and Larry Izzo, the former Dolphin who's tremendous on special teams but as a linebacker is tremendous on special teams.

So we must temper some of the enthusiasm that six-game winning streak and 9-7 normally would bring because it's clear the Dolphins still have some ways to go.

If the Dolphins were ready to be big-time contenders, they would have spanked those replica Patriots on Sunday, not won by two points.

And perhaps Belichick would have been too embarrassed to have Flutie play the role of kicker.

It's like they say, Rome wasn't built in a day. In football terms, you don't build a championship team in one year.

What the Dolphins did this season and completed on Sunday was a tremendous first step in Saban building a foundation. So even though we shouldn't get too carried away with this victory over New England, we should feel confident that maybe someday soon the roles will be reversed, and maybe the Dolphins will have their own backup quarterback doing some kicking with a playoff berth already clinched.

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