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Analysis: Patriots reserves fill the breach

With all the injuries they have suffered this season, the New England Patriots need stout play from their reserves if they are going to make the playoffs, and they got it in Sunday's exciting 23-16 win over the Dolphins in Miami.

Fullback Heath Evans, cornerback Ellis Hobbs and tight end Benjamin Watson all took advantage of their opportunities and made critical plays to help the Patriots raise their record to 5-4.

The win gives New England a one-game lead over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. The Patriots now have a 2-0 record in the division with four division games remaining.

The Patriots had to come from behind to win. They had taken a 15-7 lead with 12:29 remaining, but the Dolphins drove 57 yards for a field goal to close to 15-10 then picked off Patriots QB Tom Brady and drove 56 yards for a touchdown to take a 16-15 lead. (They missed a two-point conversion.)

After a 29-yard kickoff return by Bethel Johnson, Brady atoned quickly for his interception by hitting WR Tim Dwight for a 59-yard gainer on first down. Dolphins CB Reggie Howard got his hands on the ball and could have made an interception, but Dwight took it away. That play put New England at the Miami 17-yard line. Brady hit Watson in the end zone for a touchdown on the next play.

Miami got the ball back with 2:11 to play, and Frerotte soon completed a 47-yard strike to WR Wes Welker. The Dolphins soon had 1st-and-goal at the New England 5-yard-line, but they couldn't convert. Patriots reserve CB Hank Poteat made a key play on 3rd-and-goal, dropping Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown for a 5-yard loss on a short pass play.

Poteat was but one reserve who stepped it up yesterday. Here is what three others did.

-- Evans, a fullback whom the Patriots signed after he was waived by the Dolphins, carried the ball 17 for 84 yards (4.9 yards per carry). Evans was called upon after RB Corey Dillon apparently re-aggravated his nagging leg injury on the game's first play. Evans ran for 21 yards on the Patriots' second play from scrimmage and added a pair of 14-yard runs later in the game. He also gained 18 yards combined on three passes. The 6'0" 250-pounder had gained only 108 yards rushing in four-plus NFL seasons before Sunday's game. "I thought he ran well, made some nice cuts, ran hard, picked up the blitz a couple of times," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. "He stepped up and did a great job."

-- Hobbs, a rookie third-round draft pick out of Iowa State, made his first career start and logged an interception and a fumble recovery. He nearly intercepted another ball as well. Hobbs also tied for the team lead with seven tackles. He started in place of Duane Starks, who last week became the fifth New England defensive back to be knocked out for the season. "Ellis played real competitively for us," said Belichick.

-- Watson, a second-year tight end, accounted for both New England touchdowns with a pair of end-zone receptions. He scored the game-winning touchdown with 2:23 remaining when he caught a 17-yard pass from Brady in the left corner of the end zone and did a nice job of getting his feet down before falling out of bounds. For the game, he totaled three catches for 37 yards. Watson's role in the passing game was expanded on Sunday because fellow tight end Daniel Graham missed the game with a shoulder injury.

The injury bug that has gutted the New England defense all season afflicted the offense with a vengeance this week. Three previously healthy offensive starters -- WR David Givens, tackle Tom Ashworth and Graham -- all missed the Miami game with injuries. Brandon Gorin stepped in for Ashworth at right tackle, and Johnson started at wideout for Givens.

The offense suffered another loss during the game when Center Dan Koppen left and did not return. He appeared to have suffered a left leg injury when Evans stepped on him during a rushing play. Russ Hochstein replaced Koppen.

The New England offensive line performed well under the circumstances, opening some good holes for Evans and Mike Cloud and giving Brady a decent amount of time to pass on most plays while allowing only two sacks. Once Koppen went out, New England was playing with reserves or rookies at four of the five interior line positions.

While the offense was losing more players, the defense welcomed back All-Pro DE Richard Seymour, who had been out since Oct. 2 with a knee injury. With Seymour back, the Patriots held the Dolphins to just 77 yards rushing on 25 carries.

The defense also welcomed back Troy Brown, who made his first appearance of the season at cornerback. Brown, a wide receiver and punt returner with 13 years of NFL experience, played some DB last year but had been played only offense and special teams in '05 until Sunday.

The defense started the game well, holding Miami to 25 yards on its first possession and 20 yards on its second. But the Dolphins found some offensive rhythm in the second quarter and went 62 yards in nine plays on their third possession. Frerotte nearly gave the Dolphins a 7-0 lead on a third-down pass from the New England 13, but Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi dove to deflect the pass, which was intended for Welker. The drive went for naught when Olindo Mare missed a 31-yard field goal attempt.

The Dolphins really got it going on their next possession, marching 69 yards on eight plays and taking a 7-0 lead on a Frerotte scoring pass to WR Chris Chambers.

The next Miami possession was just as effective, covering 55 yards on four plays. The fourth play ended badly for Miami, however. Dolphins TE Randy McMichael caught a 27-yard pass from Frerotte, but Patriots LB Rosevelt Colvin punched the ball from his grasp at the New England 9-yard-line, and Hobbs recovered the loose ball.

Before the fumble, the Dolphins had appeared headed for a 14-0 lead, but when Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri nailed a 35-yarder with 0:07 remaining in the first half, the Patriots were trailing only 7-3.

Miami had a much harder time moving the ball in the second half, gaining only one first down on their first five possessions.

With their running game held in check, the Dolphins took to the air and inflicted plenty of damage against the Patriots' threadbare secondary. Frerotte completed 25 of 47 passes for 360 yards and two touchdowns.

The New England offense, meanwhile, gained momentum as the game went on, scoring 15 unanswered points to take a 15-7 lead with 12:29 remaining. Brady had another excellent day, completing 21 of 36 passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

With Givens out, several teammates picked up the slack. Deion Branch had five catches for 82 yards, Dwight had three catches for 70 yards, and Brown had three for 36. Tight end Christian Fauria caught his first two passes of the season, and Johnson had two catches for nine yards.

The Patriots play the 2-7 New Orleans Saints next Sunday at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

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