By: Bob George/
December 29, 2002

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FOXBOROUGH – No. Tell me the Pack didn’t lose. Please. I beg you.

In what should have been a lead pipe cinch, the New York Jets caught the Green Bay Packers in a funk the Patriots assumed they were in back on October 13th. While the 1967 Red Sox listened to their radios after their season finale and cheered the Angels beating the Tigers to give them the pennant, the Patriots watched on television in horror as their Herculean effort Sunday at Gillette Stadium went totally for naught. Instead of celebrating a wild 27-24 overtime win over the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots left the stadium with their heads in their hands, and their championship defense officially ended.

The unbelievable 42-17 win by the Jets over the Packers gave the Jets the AFC East title at 9-7 (the Jets beat Miami on division record and the Patriots on common opponents), and knocked both the Patriots and the Dolphins out of the playoffs. Cleveland and Indianapolis both claimed Wild Card berths, as Cleveland beat the Patriots on conference record.

The fact that the Patriots were in this position to root for the Packers was their own fault, losing two straight games to Tennessee and the Jets prior to today’s showdown with Miami. But the Patriots managed to pull off a miracle late rally to defeat Miami, and had to figure that they had the division title easy given all the elements the Jets-Packers game offered.

Green Bay, with Philadelphia losing at Exit 16-W Saturday to the Giants, would have secured home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win. The Jets were 4-3 at home going into this game, but has had a penchant for playing poorly at home the last few years. Even though the Jets were pumped up after learning of the Patriot win which staved off elimination for them, on paper this was a clear Packer win to be had.

But it didn’t happen. Brett Favre, who always seems to play very well against the Patriots (cross-reference: October 13th, Super Bowl XXXI), played instead like his early years, much to the disdain and consternation of Patriot Nation. Much the same condemnation goes to the Packer defense, who somehow in their dilapidated state held the Patriots to ten points in October, but looked lazy and uncommitted Sunday night against the Jets. At least Terry Glenn got enough yards to get the Patriots an extra fourth-round draft pick, and did make a nice catch for the only Packer touchdown of the evening.

Thanks a heap, Pack. Hope the Eagles make you pay for the lousy job you did on Sunday.

This in no way absolves the Patriots from being in the position of having to root for the Packers today, a game Patriot Nation had every rational reason to believe the Jets should have lost. At least the Patriots now know how their 1980 brethren felt, when they needed help the final weekend and missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record. Losing the previous two games proved to be deadly for the Patriots, and relying on what should have been solid help from Green Bay sealed a fate the Patriots richly deserved.

A Wild Card berth was made impossible also, thanks to Kansas City losing Saturday, Cleveland winning Sunday and the Patriots not tieing with Miami. Atlanta backed into the playoffs with New Orleans losing, but that should not have figured into their game against the Browns. Cleveland has come all the way back from Dwayne Rudd losing his head to making the playoffs for the first time in their new incarnation.

Oh, yeah. The Patriots won an awfully exciting game today.

Remember? The Patriots rallied late to stun Miami. Down 24-13 with about five minutes to go, the Patriots came back thanks to Norv Turner going into brainlock, a gift non-call on an obvious penalty, and the best field goal kicker in the league doing his thing. The Patriots withstood a rushing onslaught by Ricky Williams, and still managed to catch the Fish at the end and hook ‘em in overtime.

In what should have been a Miami cakewalk, if you take the first half as a prime example, the Dolphins staged an incredible Miami meltdown in the final five minutes of regulation. It was a classic collapse, one that will send Fish Nation into a worse tizzy than anyone around these parts might be experiencing. For all the grief the defrocked champions and their fans feel right now, it is nothing compared to what Miami fans must be feeling right now. What seemed like an easy division title is now an empty offseason, and the efforts of the league’s leading rusher are totally gone to waste.

The first half was Williams, Williams, and more Williams. He torched the Patriots for 120 yards rushing on 14 carries in the first half, much of that yardage run towards the right side. Mike Vrabel and anyone else pretending to provide containment were no match for his speed and his power. He ripped off several runs of ten yards or more, and he made it look embarrassingly easy in the process.

On their first drive of the second quarter, with Miami leading 7-0, the Dolphins drove 87 yards in nine plays. Five of those plays were Williams runs. Three of those runs were 13, 17 and 14 runs, all to the right side. The last of those three runs was for a touchdown and a 14-0 Miami lead. Two drives later, Williams ignited a 76-yard touchdown drive with a 30-yard run where he burst up the middle, cut left and ran a mile down the left sideline. Jay Fiedler finished the drive with a 32-yard touchdown pass to James McKnight.

It was 21-10 Dolphins at the half. The Patriots did manage a touchdown drive thanks to five Kevin Faulk touches and an 11-yard touchdown run by Antowain Smith. But neither Faulk nor Smith would be huge factors in the second half turnaround and the eventual fourth quarter rally by the Patriots.

Miami made a questionable adjustment in the second half, and it didn’t come back to bite them on the ankle until late in the game. Instead of maintaining Williams’ assault on the Patriot run defense, Turner elected to sit on the lead and manage the game the rest of the way, trusting the game to the Miami defense. Given the way Williams was torching the Patriot defense, it was not sound strategy for this game, though against a team with a better run defense it might have been a good idea.

The Patriots, meanwhile, moved Roman Phifer to the left side and used him to help stop the right end/tackle runs by Williams, and for the most part it worked. Williams rushed for “only” 65 yards in the second half and finished with 185 rushing yards total, and the Dolphins scored only 3 second half points. That turned out to be key with the Patriots poised to make a run at the Dolphins late in the game.

That run didn’t happen until 4:59 to go in the game. Despite holding Miami to only a field goal, the Patriots could do next to nothing on offense. When Brock Marion intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the fourth quarter, and the Fish parlayed it into a 28-yard field goal by Olindo Mare, it was 24-13 Dolphins with 4:59 left, and the Patriots were left for dead. To most everyone watching, the game was pretty much over at this time.

The Patriots then began to drive on a Dolphin defense that softened up a bit and began to give the Patriots some underneath stuff. On second and 15 from their own 47, Brady found David Patten for 20 yards. Two plays later, the play that turned the game permanently to the Patriots took place.

Brady lofted a deep pass to David Givens on a right sideline route. Jamar Fletcher was in tight coverage. Givens grabbed Fletcher’s jersey as the ball came closer. The ball sailed over Givens’ head and fell incomplete. Flag thrown. Holding on Givens.

Nope. Interference on Fletcher. Fletcher was flagged for an inadvertent touch of Givens’ arm. Patriots have first and goal at the three. It was clearly holding on Givens. It might have been the first lucky break of the season for the former champs.

Two plays later, Brady finds Troy Brown for a score, and then hits Christian Fauria for a two-pointer. It was 24-21 Miami, and then both teams traded brain cramps.

With 2:13 left, the Patriots had to go for an onside kick. Instead, they kicked it deep. Granted, Miami got it at their own 4, but this was a bad move. All Miami had to do was to run Williams at least three or four times and this one’s over.

Except Miami never ran Williams. Turner inexplicably chose three pass plays, the last of which resulted in a Fiedler scramble which fell short of a first down. A lousy punt helped Adam Vinatieri tie the game up from 43 yards out with 1:02 left.

On to overtime. The Patriots won the toss, and a snap-it-to-Faulk play for 15 yards, followed by a neat right sideline catch by Faulk for 20 yards, set up Vinatieri from 35 yards out. Bank that, folks. He’s simply the best kicker in the NFL.

But it ultimately went all for naught. The Pack stunk as bad as Limburger cheese, and both the Patriots and Dolphins are sent home while the Browns, Colts and Jets are in. Ye Gods.

The title defense is now over. The Patriots have no one to blame but themselves. Too much, too little, too late. Bring on Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams to croon it for you all.

And it is still held that the hardest thing to do in the NFL is to repeat as champs.

Now the Patriots know this full well. Happy offseason, Patriots.