FOXBOROUGH – It's called a sucker punch if you get walloped and you don't see it coming.
When you know it's coming and you still can't stop it – over and over again – that's just a plain old beating.
Before Sunday, the last time the Patriots lost a regular season game, the Miami Dolphins blanked them 21-0 in Florida in 2006. And in 2007, the last time Dolphins running back Ronnie Brownplayed the Patriots, his season came to an end with a knee injury.
Brown exacted payback Sunday by scoring four rushing touchdowns and throwing for a fifth. Four of those scores came from a college-type spread formation in which Brown was lined up in the shotgun, with Dolphins QB Chad Penningtonlined up as a flanker. The direct snap would go to Brown, who would fake a handoff to a teammate (often Ricky Williams), then keep the ball and dart through a hole on the right side.
They also went with an unbalanced look, shifting personnel, with left tackle Jake Longmoving over to the right alongside right tackle Vernon Carey. A tight end (Anthony Fasano, typically) filled in for Long on the left.
"Well, I don't think its something that we looked for," Dolphins head coach Tony Sparanoexplained. "We had gone unbalanced earlier in the game just to see what the adjustment might have been formationally. We actuality threw the ball on that play and we brought Jake over and went unbalance just to see the adjustment and then we kind of went for it when we got down there close in the red area."
The next time the Dolphins ran it, Brown scored from two yards out in the first quarter. The Patriots defense clearly wasn't prepared for it.
Later in the second quarter, after Brown had already scored his second touchdown of the day on a 15-yard run, Miami ran the play again, with a similar result – Brown hitting paydirt.
"They threw a couple of wrinkles in there," defensive lineman Ty Warrenobserved. "That's to be expected, early on in the season. Teams have more in their game plan to come up with and they did a good job executing."
Cornerback Ellis Hobbspointed out bluntly, "They just did things that, as a defense, we weren't ready for."
Clearly not. Early in the third, up 21-6, the Dolphins lined up in the same spread, unbalanced formation. This time, however, instead of going right, Brown – a lefty – ran laterally to his left. But the play was, in fact, a designed pass. Brown executed the fake perfectly, hitting Fasano, who made a nice reaching grab at the left pylon.
"I know he's got a lot of talent, and he definitely showed it today, how versatile he is," said wide receiver Wes Welker.
Oh, but Brown wasn't done. On the first play of the fourth quarter, a first-and-ten from the Dolphins 38, Miami offensive coordinator Dan Henningcalled the play one more time. Brown took it 62 yards for the touchdown, his fourth on the ground and fifth overall on the day.
Sparano said the idea for the unorthodox formation was a combination of ideas from Henning and QBs coach David Lee.
"What's interesting is when there was no sleep during the course of the week, but really on the flight back [from last week's game in Arizona], I brought David up to the front of the plane and David and I just chatted a bit. And of course this is a little bit of what he did there and a little bit of what Dan has done and we kind of meshed it together and it was a good idea."
Pennington had an efficient day as well under center. The bulk of his 226 passing yards came on several plays where he found open receivers in the middle of the field.
The soft middle of the Pats' D was particularly surprising when you consider that Pennington is not known for having the strongest arm at this point in his career. You might expect, therefore, that the middle might be an obvious target to defend, since he might not be as much of a threat throwing deep downfield or long out-patterns toward the sideline.
"I guess they saw that as a weak spot that they could hit in their game plan," Hobbs noted.
On the other side, Patriots QB Matt Casselcouldn't quite get his offense in a rhythm to mount a comeback.
Perhaps the turning point of the game came with 7 minutes to go in the first. Cassel, on a second and goal from the 12 (after a sack) appeared to make a daring escape from the clutches of Dolphins rookie d-lineman Phillip Merling. Cassel then scampered to the end zone, stiff-arming another Miami lineman on the way, for what looked like the opening score of the game. But the officials had a quick whistle and ruled that Cassel was in the grasp.
On the next play, Cassel was intercepted. The Dolphins took the turnover and marched down the field on a drive that culminated with Brown's first touchdown.
But even if Cassel had scored, it's hard to imagine the New England defense would have found a way to stop Brown and Miami's spread formation.
"They kind of did it a little bit at Arkansas last year, and Coach thought it might work," Brown said in the visitors locker room afterwards. "We had some success today and hopefully its something we can build on and maybe I can throw some more touchdowns."
For the Patriots, the bye week looms, and perhaps it couldn't be coming at a better time.
"Momma said there's going to be days like this," safety Rodney Harrisonmused, "and it definitely was a bad day.
"I don't think you ever see a loss like this coming," said Welker. "It was one of those deals where they wanted it more and played a lot better than we did.
"We just gotta continue to fight … we definitely need to come back tomorrow and make sure we're working even harder to make sure we're on the same page."
"We're not going to get down," Harrison added. "It's the third game of the season, we're 2-1, still in a good position. We've got 13 games left, a bye week to get some rest, and come back with a positive attitude and win our next game."