FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (Jan. 1, 2006) -- The Patriots are headed to the playoffs after their most entertaining loss of the season. The Dolphins are done after their sixth straight win.
Tom Brady watched most of it from the sidelines.
Miami achieved its longest winning streak in 13 years with a 28-26 victory over New England, which rested many of its starters with an eye toward next Jan. 7's wild-card game against Jacksonville at Foxborough.
"When you're a spectator, it's a little bit different," said Brady, who was 3 of 8 for 37 yards and didn't play after the first quarter. "You can't control what's going on."
He couldn't even have imagined.
Doug Flutie converted the NFL's first successful drop kick for an extra point in 64 years. Rookie quarterback Matt Cassel, who threw 33 passes in four years as a backup at USC, threw two touchdown passes. And rookie wide receiver Bam Childress, who made his first pro catch after being activated before the game, gave up a touchdown catch while playing cornerback.
"We played guys to get them experience, get them out there to play," coach Bill Belichick said, "give them a chance so they will be better prepared to play if they are called upon."
Running back Corey Dillon, who was healthy, and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who had a left calf injury, were inactive. Other starters sat out all or most of the game.
That didn't diminish the victory for the Dolphins (9-7), who finished one game behind the AFC East champion Patriots (10-6), who are seeded fourth.
"You play whoever's out there," Miami defensive end Jason Taylor said. "Those are all professional players."
Olindo Mare kicked four field goals, Gus Frerotte threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Marty Booker, Ricky Williams scored on a 3-yard run and Cassel was sacked for a safety.
But the two-time defending champion Patriots staged a late comeback, as the 43-year-old Flutie made the NFL's first successful drop kick since Ray McLean for the Chicago Bears on Dec. 21, 1941. It followed Cassel's first pro touchdown pass, a 6-yarder to Tim Dwight that made it 25-19 with 6:10 left.
As the ball sailed through the uprights, Flutie punched the air and was mobbed by teammates. Then he ran to the sideline, where he was embraced by a smiling Belichick.
"I just thanked him for the opportunity," said Flutie, who had been dropped to third-string quarterback before the game. He felt he had "probably an 80 percent chance (of making the kick). It was fun."
After Mare's 42-yard field goal made it 28-20 with 1:55 left, Cassel cut the lead to 28-26 with a 9-yard pass to Ben Watson with no time left. But Cassel's pass for a two-point conversion fell incomplete.
"I'm very excited," Cassel said. "You get a few series under your belt, you get hit in the chin, things seem to calm down."
The Dolphins started the season 3-7 under new coach Nick Saban, then didn't lose again.
"We are not in the playoffs, but it was not all in vain," Saban said. "This group was a team for the last six weeks of the season, for sure."
Williams, who scored before first-string defenders left in the second quarter, rushed for 108 yards, one week after gaining 172.
"It shows how important it is to stay behind your team even through the hard times," Williams said. "Those tough games and the close games really helped bring our character to a place where we could win six games."
One steady contributor for the Patriots turned in his usual solid performance. Adam Vinatieri kicked field goals of 49 and 41 yards and finished the season with 100 points, joining Denver's Jason Elam as the only NFL kickers to score that many in each of their first 10 seasons.
Brady, who finished the season with a career-high 4,010 yards passing, threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch that tied the game at 7, then sat down. Regular receivers joined him on the sideline.
Next Saturday, the starters will be back when the playoffs start and Brady should feel fine.
"I'd rather be out there," he said, but "it's the best I've felt coming out of the game in a long time. I don't think I got hit once."
Notes: Frerotte threw his career-high 18th touchdown pass. ... Brady's 37 yards passing were the fewest of his career. ... New England won at least 10 games for the fifth straight season.