PHOTO: New England Patriots' Corey Dillon (28) beats the tackle by Miami Dolphins' Arturo Freeman (20) to score a touchdown during the second quarter at Pro Player Stadium in Miami Monday, Dec. 20, 2004. (AP Photo/Luis Alvarez)
Patriots: What The Heck Happened?
By Darren Kelly, Site Contributor
How did we go from thinking "this game's over" when the Patriots scored to go up 28-17 to comparing Tom Brady to Jake Plummer, Aaron Brooks, and (God forbid) Drew Bledsoe? Stealing a page from the Minnesota Vikings' playbook, the Pats allowed 2 touchdowns in the final 4 minutes, couldn't garner a first down when they desperately needed one, and left a stunned (and tired) Patriots Nation with that old "'86 Celtics just lost a home game" feeling.
Leading 21-17 with 8:56 remaining, Brady directed an 8-play, 65-yard drive that was capped off with a 2-yard TD pass to Daniel Graham. Adam Vinatieri's extra point extended the lead to 11, and the final 3:59 were expected to be a mere formality.
Then-inexplicably-the wheels came off the Patriots Express in a manner that hadn't happened in either of the Super Bowl-winning seasons.
First, let's take a look at how the offense played. Corey Dillon was a machine on the opening drive, picking up 18 yards on his first run, then 3 or 4 yards on each of his next 4 carries. This opened the door for the play-action touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk. On the next few drives Dillon was getting stopped by the Dolphins defense (picking up just 4 yards on 4 carries over the course of 3 possessions). After that opening drive the offense had no rhythm in the first half. The passing game never materialized (Brady threw his first of four interceptions in the half) and the running game was brought to a screeching halt.
It wasn't until the 3rd Quarter when the Dolphins scored (following Brady's 2nd INT) to take the lead 17-14 that the New England offense finally started clicking again. Dillon carried 5 times for 31 yards, and caught a 2-yard TD pass from Brady. On that drive Brady was 3-for-4 for 22 yards and a TD. The Pats were back on top 21-17. The running game was churning out yards, and Brady finally looked as if he had the time and patience to effectively move the ball.
The special teams had a particularly bad night. Wes Welker routinely picked up 25-30 yards on each kickoff return (the Pats are ranked 29th in the NFL in kickoff return average, allowing 23.5 yards per return). When the Pats punted on their second possession, Welker returned the kick 71 yards to the 2-yard line (only Je'Rod Cherry's play prevented a TD on the return). The Pats are now tied for 30th in punt return average. The field position allowed on the kicks gave the Dolphins a shorter field to work with on each possession.
Defensively, the Patriots had a Jeckyll and Hyde game. Leading 7-0 right out of the gate, the Pats sacked Feeley on the Dolphins' third play, forcing a fumble (which the Dolphins recovered). But following the Welker 71-yard punt return, the Dolphins had 1st-and-goal from the 2. One play-TD Dolphins. For the next couple of series the Pats D came up big, sacking Feeley, playing tough on pass and run defense. And even when the Dolphins finally had a sustained drive (just before the half), the Pats held them to a field goal. But Feeley was 5-for-7 on that drive, and it was probably the reason the Dolphins only ran the ball (not counting kneeldowns) 11 times the rest of the game. They realized the chink in the Patriots armor was the pass defense (with all of the small defenders trying to cover the Dolphins tall receivers) and they were going after it.
Following a 3-and-out in which Dillon was stopped short of the 1st down marker, the Pats D sacked Feeley, stuffed the run, forced a holding call, and got the ball back on their own 35 following a punt. Dillon carried twice for 7 yards, Brady hit Branch with an 11-yard pass, and then Faulk carried 3 straight times, picking up 25 yards. Dillon ripped off a 20-yard run before Brady hit Graham with the 2-yard TD pass to put the Pats on top 28-17.
And then came the meltdown. The Dolphins passed on 6 of the 8 plays of their 68-yard scoring drive. The Patriots kept blitzing, even when it was apparent that it wasn't working. Feeley was 4-for-6 on the drive, and every play caused the refs to think about throwing a flag. Finally, Rodney Harrison committed a penalty that couldn't be ignored-a brutal pass interference in the end zone that put the ball on the 1-yard line. Once again, the Dolphins scored on 1st-and-goal with ease, cutting the lead to 28-23 with 2:07 remaining.
With the Dolphins lined up in a "we might do an onside kick or we might not" formation, David Patten hauled in the long kickoff and ran straight for the sideline, apparently thinking that 7 seconds weren't worth risking his life with fewer blockers and no wedge. The result was that the Dolphins would have the 2-minute warning and all 3 of their timeouts at their disposal.
Knowing the 2-minute warning was imminent and that the Dolphins would expect a run, the Pats passed on 1st down. Remember, Brady was 7-for-his-last-9 (which came on the heels of his 2nd interception of the game). Charlie Weis decided he'd put the game in his quarterback's hands. Brady threw incomplete to Branch.
On 2nd down, Dillon picked up 1 yard (and Miami used its first timeout), leaving the Pats with 3rd-and-9. One first down would mean (at worst) the Pats would be punting with about 20 seconds left. So they decided to try and get it. The call was a play action pass. No one bit on the play action though, and Brady made the worst decision of his career. While getting dragged to the ground by Jason Taylor, who had been living in the backfield for much of the game, Brady lobbed a duck right into the arms of Brendon Ayanbadejo. Miami had the ball with 1:45 to play, 21 yards from taking the lead.
After a false start penalty, Feeley went 1-for-3 for a mere 5 yards, but on all 3 pass plays the Patriots continued to blitz and left their defensive backs alone on the proverbial island. This set up a 4th-and-10 that would decide the game. It would be Miami's 13th pass attempt in their last 15 plays, and this one was a 21-yard TD strike to Derrius Thompson. Troy Brown turned the wrong way on the play, leaving just enough space for Feeley to put the ball.
The Dolphins missed the 2-point conversion, giving the Patriots one last chance to march the field and win the game with a field goal. But not on this night. After Brady was sacked on the first play, once again the Dolphins were in the backfield and Brady-hit as he was throwing-fired his 4th interception of the night.
Another Monday Night Meltdown-but this time it was the team that had been insulated from this type of game for so long that was on the losing end. It was Bird missing the game-winning jumper all over again. Mighty Casey had struck out. The Patriots lost a game they should have won.
In terms of playoff positioning, this game all but guarantees the Steelers the top seed in the AFC (and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs). The Pats would need to win both their remaining games and have the Steelers lose both of theirs to get the top seed now.
One more win clinches the #2 seed and a first round bye. Also, the winner of this weekend's Indianapolis Colts-San Diego Chargers match-up will be the #3 seed, and the Patriots' likely first opponent on January 8 or 9 at Gillette Stadium. But first the Patriots coaching staff has to figure out what the heck happened Monday night. The Pats can't afford to have this type of meltdown against the Jets-or in the playoffs.
Darren is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"
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