By: Bob George/BosSports.net
December 19, 2004

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MIAMI -- Division title already clinched. There goes all the suspense in this one.

Patriots/Dolphins
Close-Up
Where: Pro Player Park
Miami, Florida
When: Monday 12/20/04
9:00 PM EST
TV National:
TV Local:
ABC
WCVB-TV 5
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 931
2004 Team
Records:
Patriots 12-1
Dolphins 2-11
Latest Line: Patriots by 9 1/2
Super Bowl champs get lots of primetime exposure, and the Patriots are certainly no exception. This is their third Monday night appearance this year (actually, it's the third time on ABC, the Colts game was on a Thursday). For those of you in love with early Sunday games, the Patriots are becoming aggravating. You have to wait and wait and wait to see your favorite team, and when it's Monday night, you have to wait a whole day. When your entire being revolves around the Patriots during Sundays in the fall, it can be tough.

The Patriots continue their Let's Copy Pittsburgh campaign down at Pro Player Park on Monday night, hoping to keep pace with the still-once-beaten Steelers against the woebegone Dolphins. Mired in the worst season in franchise history, Miami has a new coach, still has no Ricky Williams, but still has a great defense. But Miami's Achilles heel, their offense, is still anemic and unproductive, and despite the Patriots still being banged up in the secondary (and you all know by now that Tyrone Poole won't be back), the Patriots don't figure to trip up here.

And given their past history against this team in this city, things do look rather good for the champions as they head into their fourteenth game of the regular season.

The Patriots have come to this city three times on Monday night since the snapping of the jinx (no wins in Miami from 1966 to 1985). All three games have two things in common: they were all in December, and they were all wins. Two of these wins clinched the AFC East for the Patriots. Since the Patriots clinched the division last week by virtue of their beating Cincinnati and the Jets losing to Pittsburgh, there are no division implications in this matchup.

And if there were, Miami wouldn't factor into that equation whatsoever.

The Dolphins are a shell of what the previous three Monday Dolphin opponents have been for the Patriots. Williams' insane (or drug-induced, you make the call) interview on 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace pretty much sums up the 2004 season for Miami in a nutshell. The only lucid remark he made was that he'd like to wind up with the Oakland Raiders because he said that "they let weirdos play there", and he's right. Other than that, the Dolphin season went south when Ricky went south. Or west. Wherever he went.

If you are a football purist, Monday night's game will be disappointing. If you are a Patriot fan, you are kneeling down and saying to yourself, "Please no trap game! Please no trap game!" over and over several times. If you are a Dolphin fan, you hope Monday night will be the high water mark of the season, seeing your faves stick it to the Patriots and perhaps mortally wound any chance whatsoever for the Patriots to repeat as the top playoff seed in the AFC. But unless the latter prospect happens, Monday night will be devoid of the interest and drama which the previous three matchups have offered.

That jinx, where the Patriots lost all those games in a row in Miami during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, ended gloriously for the Patriots. The Patriots won their final two games at the old Orange Bowl, and both wins had playoff implications. The first of those two wins was nothing less than the AFC Championship Game of 1985, the first time the Patriots had been in such a game since the 1970 merger. The Patriots handed the Dolphins their first ever AFC title game loss with a 31-14 victory which snapped the jinx and sent the Patriots to Super Bowl XX.

Many Patriot fans remember this game as being, at that time, the watershed win in Patriot history. Fewer Patriot fans remember the following season, where the Patriots defended their AFC Championship by winning the AFC East. If you recall, in 1985 the Patriots were the Wild Card team, and had to win three road playoff games to make it to the Super Bowl. In 1986, the Patriots were battling the Jets for the division lead, and Cincinnati was praying along with the Jets for Miami to beat the Patriots so that they could slip in as a Wild Card at 10-6.

The teams staged a wild battle at the Orange Bowl, the final regular season game the Dolphins would play at the old edifice. A Rod McSwain interception late in the contest sealed a 34-27 Patriot win and the division title (they finished 11-5, and would have lost the tiebreaker with both the Jets and Bengals had they lost the game). ABC had a live camera of some Bengal players watching the game at a bar at Cincinnati's airport, and had a priceless shot of their dejection when McSwain made his pick. The Patriots went on to lose in the divisional round at Denver, 22-17.

The following year, in brand new Joe Robbie Stadium (now Pro Player Park), the Patriots and Dolphins once again met in the season finale. Miami was trying to keep pace with Indianapolis, who was leading the division at 9-6 (the 1987 season was shortened one game due to a player's strike). But the 7-7 Patriots played the role of spoiler, and knocked off the Dolphins, 24-10 in their first meeting in the new stadium. The Colts won the division, which at the time was remarkable in that it was their first division title in ten years, their first since leaving Baltimore.

Then in 1997, the first year of the Pete Carroll era, the Patriots once again played a season finale at Miami on Monday night. This game had unusual playoff implications, in that the winner would win the division and host the other in the Wild Card round the following week. The Patriots had won an earlier matchup against the Dolphins at Foxborough Stadium, 27-24. Now, to advance in the playoffs, they would have to beat the Dolphins twice in two weeks, pulling off a rare three-game seasonal sweep.

The first step came on Monday night, and the Patriots were able to hold off the Dolphins at home and win 14-12. This was when the Steve Sidwell Patriot defense was hitting its stride, and the Patriots, still smarting from the loss to Pittsburgh at home the preceding week (the Kevin Henry game), surrendering home field to the Steelers, showed tremendous character and resilience in winning this game. It was clear that if the defending AFC champs were to return to the Super Bowl, the defense would have to carry the load.

And it almost worked. The following week at Foxborough, the Patriots completed their trifecta against Miami with a 17-3 win in the Wild Card round, thanks to a Todd Collins interception for a touchdown and a key late sack of Dan Marino by, of all people, Chris Canty. The Patriots would fall the next week at Pittsburgh, 7-6, thanks to most every key Patriot offensive player out with injuries, a non-clipping call on the one touchdown of the game for Pittsburgh, and a forced fumble of Drew Bledsoe by some guy named Mike Vrabel, a rookie back then. Despite their Super Bowl run falling short, the Monday night win at Miami was the catalyst for this defense of their conference championship.

All the 2004 meeting will be about will be the Patriots avoiding a trap game scenario. The Dolphins are 2-11 and cannot wait for the season to end. The only thing that may help the Dolphins is that new head coach Jim Bates may not be as easily outcoached as Dave Wannstedt was. Perhaps Bates can figure a way to get his moribund offense going against the battered Patriot secondary, though he still has very little material at the quarterback position to try and pull that off.

Oh well, let's bring on Hank Jr., and pray that there's no Nicolette Sheridan sighting. And get Tom Brady on that horse trailer, also.


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