When the game was over, nobody wanted leave. The players rollicked around the field, slapping fives with their coaches, the fans and each other. Most of the 60,029 hearty souls that braved the cold and wind to witness the closing of Foxboro Stadium, at least for the regular season, remained to celebrate this most unlikely of division leaders.
The scoreboard above the south end zone listed the standings in the AFC East, and for the first time since midway through the 1999 season, the Patriots were placed at the top.
Saturday's 20-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins meant much more than a single win to this franchise that has seen more than its share of bizarre happenings over the years. But first and foremost, it means first place for the 10-5 Patriots, who are one-half game ahead of the Dolphins as they enter their bye week.
Troy Brown and Ty Law raced around the field like high school kids after their final Thanksgiving Day game. Before heading back to their locker room, they ran to midfield and took a bow as the fans roared with approval. Head Coach Bill Belichick, freshly doused by a bucket of water courtesy of Law, held the game ball in his hands as he led his players on a lap around the field.
"That was a great day today," Belichick said. "I am really thrilled with our football team. Each week somebody steps up and makes the plays to help us win the game. It was a great, emotional day for our fans. They have been great all year and so supportive and enthusiastic."
If this indeed was the final game ever played in this cement bowl, the Patriots closed the joint in style. Needing a win to remain in contention for the AFC East title, New England manhandled a team that had done the same to it just a few months ago. In Miami's 30-10 walk over the Patriots in Week Four, running back Lamar Smith bullied New England all over the field to the tune of 144 yards on the ground.
Saturday, it was Antowain Smith and the Patriots offensive line doing the bullying. Smith was in control from the start and finished with a career-high 156 yards on 26 carries. He ran right, left and up the middle. He ran well on first downs, short-yardage and near the goal line. Basically, he was too much for Miami's vaunted front seven, who had no answers for him.
The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins at Foxboro Stadium on Saturday, December 22, 2001.
"They controlled the ball in the first half," Miami Head Coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They ran the ball on us and controlled the tempo of the game. You're not going to win big games playing like that, especially on the road. We weren't physical enough at the point on both sides of the ball."
That's an adjective that suddenly describes the Patriots perfectly. Actually, it's not so suddenly. For the past several weeks, announcements of injured Patriots opponents have echoed through the press box more often than media types eat free food.
Countless Dolphins players left the field with various ailments — linebacker Derrick Rodgers was knocked out with a dislocated shoulder, cornerback Patrick Surtain aggravated a broken finger, wideout James McKnight injured an ankle — the list was seemingly endless.
Meanwhile, the Patriots defense suffocated Lamar Smith this time around while their Smith ran wild. Miami's finished with just 33 yards on 12 carries. He was stuffed on a fourth-and-one play from the Patriots 21 when Matt Stevens came flying up from his safety position to stop him. New England's lead was 20-3 at the time, and a conversion could have gotten the Dolphins back into the game.
With such a huge deficit at that point, Miami turned to the air for the remainder of the day. New England buckled a few times by allowing Jay Fiedler (21-of-37, 320 yards, 1 touchdown) to make occasional plays, but it wasn't until there was just 1:32 left on the clock that the defense allowed a touchdown. It was the first offensive touchdown allowed by the Patriots in 14 quarters dating back to the Jets game four weeks ago.
"We gave one up there late or it could have been 15 quarters," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "We let up just a bit and they took advantage. We've been playing really well lately and people are really stepping up and making plays when we need them. Teams might move the ball on us once in a while, but we've been able to keep the points to a minimum."
That was especially true in the first half when the Patriots built their lead. Tom Brady directed Belichick's ball control attack and made just enough plays to put his team in control. He completed only 11-of-19 passes for just 108 yards, but that was more than enough because of Smith, who became the first Patriots back to top the 1,000-yard mark since Robert Edwards in 1998.
"It was a big game and all week the coaches came to me and said, 'We're going to put it on your shoulders and we're going to give you chance to go out there and run the ball,'" said Smith, who shook off a bruised knee suffered late in the first half. "I had to come up with my end of the bargain. They gave me the ball early on and we were successful in the running game and we kept going back to it."
After having a nice drive halted on a fourth-down play on their opening possession of the game, the Patriots took advantage of the first of three Miami turnovers to grab the lead on their third series. Fiedler hit tight end Jed Weaver for a 19-yard gain to the Patriots 48, but Tebucky Jones' hit knocked the ball loose and Otis Smith recovered. On third-and-one from the Dolphins 43, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis reached into his bag of tricks and game up with a big play.
The snap went directly to Kevin Faulk, who started around right end. Before he got there, he stopped, turned back to his left, and tossed a perfect pass back to Brady for a 23-yard gain. On the next play, Smith romped 18 yards down to the 2 before finishing off the drive himself for a 7-0 lead.
Brady picked up his first touchdown pass of the month on the Patriots next drive when he found Patrick Pass alone in the left flat. The second-year fullback did the rest, racing 23 yards behind a key block by J.R. Redmond for his first-career touchdown. Before that play, Smith had his longest run of the season with a 44-yarder down to the Miami 29. He picked up a big block from center Damien Woody, who took out Dolphins Pro Bowl middle linebacker Zach Thomas on the play.
The Dolphins were reeling and the Patriots wouldn't let them breathe. A pair of Adam Vinatieri field goals, one set up when Miami's Ed Perry couldn't handle a kickoff and Fred Coleman recovered, gave New England a commanding 20-0 lead.
"When I saw the ball, I just dove in," said Coleman, who later made another key play by recovering an onside kick in the waning moments. "We worked so hard and we had the opportunity to do it. I was just excited to be a part of it and help."
The Patriots smartly went conservative in the second half and allowed Smith to pound away at the Dolphins and chew the clock. Redmond also had a handful of effective runs, finishing with 35 yards on 11 carries. Even though New England's offense wasn't able to put more points on the board, the ball control approach gave Miami little margin for error.
That plan worked perfectly when Stevens stopped Miami's first second-half threat and then again when a potential fourth-down conversion at the Patriots 2 was lost when Lamar Smith fumbled after picking up a first down and Roman Phifer recovered.
By the time Miami got the ball back, it trailed 20-6 with just four minutes remaining. Fielder desperately worked his team downfield by connecting with McKnight, Chris Chambers and finally Jeff Ogden for a 10-yard touchdown. But once Coleman secured Olindo Mare's onside kick, the celebration began in earnest.
"This is even more special for the guys in this locker room because so many people felt we wouldn't accomplish much this year," Willie McGinest said. "With our poor record last season and our tough start this year, nobody believed we'd be here. It was great to be able to win such an important game here in front of these fans. Hopefully, we'll be able to get them at least one more to enjoy before it's closed."
The Patriots now stand in prime position as the season winds down. When the schedule was released last spring, New England was slated to have its bye week after their season would presumably be over. With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Carolina game now awaits in two weeks and the Patriots get a chance to watch the Dolphins and Jets chase them for division supremacy.
Depending on how the ball bounces elsewhere, the Patriots could find themselves back here in three weeks hosting a playoff game.
"Each win moves us a little bit closer," Belichick said. "There is still a lot of football left, but I'm glad we're taking care of our business."
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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