MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Miami's Dolphins had reason to celebrate Sunday.
Prior to kickoff, former player Mercury Morris, a member of their unbeaten 1972 squad, was one of the team's honorary captains. Later, Morris and the rest of his teammates from that historic season were once again able to pop their champagne corks, because the last remaining unbeaten team in the NFL this year, the Tennessee Titans, fell to the New York Jets at home.
That's about all the Dolphins could be happy about, because the Patriots gave them nothing but problems all afternoon.
In a complete reversal of these two teams' first encounter back in September, New England had its way with the Miami defense and had its moments on defense against the Miami offense.
From the opening kickoff, it was evident the Patriots were the more prepared team.
The Dolphins tried to catch New England off-guard by intentionally kicking the ball short. But Patriots were ready for it.
Rookie Matthew Slater, who normally stands down near the goal line beside fellow returner Ellis Hobbs, was positioned further upfield and thus in the perfect spot to field the ball. In doing so, he averted a potential turnover on the game's first play.
That, in effect, set the tone for an AFC East division battle that certainly lived up to its considerable hype.
In the sea-saw battle that followed, the Pats made their share of mistakes. They uncharacteristically committed twice their normal amount of penalties (four in the first quarter alone) and turned the ball over twice, which led to Miami's first two touchdowns. And the middle of the field was again a soft spot, helping Dolphins QB Chad Penningtonthrow for 341 yards.
But it was Miami that seemed unprepared this time for much of what New England wanted to do offensively, which involved a lot of throwing to a single-covered Randy Moss(3 TDs). And when he wasn't open, Wes Welker(120 yards)*andJabar Gaffney (88) *were.
The Dolphins defense, which gave QB Matt Casselfits in their Week 3 encounter, did little to complicate things for him.
Cassel was not the same, raw player he was back in September. He was more confident and in complete command of his offense. Had it not been for the seven drops his receivers cost him, Cassel's stats would have been even more impressive. As it was, he accomplished something that's only been done a handful of times before: throw for back-to-back 400 - yard games.
"We knew that coming in that he was a totally different quarterback," Dolphins cornerback Jason Allentold reporters after the game. "He's built confidence and he's playing with confidence. You tip your hat off to New England and the way they prepared."
The few times New England chose to run, it did so effectively, mostly with shotgun draws that helped Kevin Faulkaverag 6.6 yards per carry and Sammy Morris4.4 (the latter was hurt late in the 4th quarter and did not return).
"I thought they came out with a good game plan," Miami DE Vonnie Holidaysaid. "Watching them on film leading into this game, they were trying to be physical upfront and run the ball more. Totally opposite in this game. They changed it up from the beginning trying to slow us down on pass rush with the screen and then pretty much from there, open it up with empty [backfield]. We weren't able to get there with a four-man rush."
And as for Moss' big day, Holiday said, "We had our DBs out on an island against very good receivers, guys that can make plays. The one guy that you can't let beat you beat us."
On the other side of the ball, Miami's much ballyhooed Wildcat formation, which won them the first Patriots-Dolphins match this season, was tame. Miami used it nine times, but New England was able to snuff it out more times than not. The most the Dolphins gained on any single Wildcat play was seven yards. More importantly, they did not score once with it.
"We did a lot better then the first time," head coach Bill Belichickacknowledged in his post-game press conference.
"I think we tackled better, and we hadn't worked on it in the first game. I mean we've seen it from other teams, but not really their version of it. I think our ability to have a chance to prepare for it, and see some of the things they've run in other games, at least when we got to the sidelines we could talk a lot more about it, you know, 'This is what we expected, this is what they're doing, and this is the adjustment we've got to make' ... That kind of thing. And having time to prepare for it definitely helped."
Nothing the Dolphins did seemed to take New England by surprise in this game. And nothing the Patriots did could be stopped by Miami.
But the game may have been won even before it was played. At least according to Moss.
"A lot of people think the game is won on Sundays, which it is," he explained afterwards. "But I think your preparation and the work you put in throughout the week is how you win that game on Sunday.
"I think we really came to play today."
And it showed. The Patriots were thoroughly prepared for Miami this time, and that made all the difference.