By: Bob George/
January 01, 2006

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FOXBOROUGH -- Call this game the perfect loss.

Everything the Patriots wanted to have happen did. No key players hurt. Enough of a tuneup for the starters. Nice work by the scrubs against the "improved” Miami first string. Easier route to Super Bowl XL.

Yet all anyone will be talking about when this game settles into everyone's memory banks is the most famous local football hero closing the curtain on his NFL career with the first successful NFL drop kick in 64 years. If Doug Flutie had to have his career come to an end in a wham-bang way without interfering with Bill Cowher -- oops -- Belichick's master plan, his fourth quarter drop kick extra point was one for the books.

The Patriots did a lot of nose-thumbing on Sunday. They thumbed their noses at the Miami Dolphins, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts, and literally lost a game they had to lose. Miami's 28-26 "win” will be interpreted by some fools as "six-game win streak by those up and coming Dolphins” or "Patriots heading into the playoffs a downtrodden team at only 10-6”.

Balderdash. The Patriots, by losing, locked in the four seed in the playoffs, since San Diego and Cincinnati did them no favors (neither did Pittsburgh, but a loss by them at home to Detroit would have sent anything Steelers to the hanging gallows). Cincinnati backs into the three seed and gets Pittsburgh at home next week. While the Bengals will have a very losable game against a divisional opponent which won at Paul Brown Stadium earlier this year, the Patriots get a still-tough-but-much-easier Jacksonville Jaguar squad next week at home.

But the best part of all is that, contrary to some certain broadcasters' points of view, a win against Jacksonville sends them to Indianapolis for the Divisional round. The Patriots will catch the Colts rusty and still reeling from the Dungy family tragedy, and this presents the Patriots' best chance to upset the Colts and head towards a presumptive battle at Denver (unless Pittsburgh wins at Denver, which would then bring the Steelers here for the AFC title game). This is why the four seed is the best way for the Patriots to get to Super Bowl XL.

And believe it, Belichick knew this all too well.

The first string of the Patriots played only the first quarter. Tom Brady threw an interception to end the first drive, and had a three-and-out on the second. But an Andre Davis kickoff return of 65 yards set up the third drive, where Brady found Deion Branch from 11 yards out for a touchdown. After that point, it was scrubs the rest of the way.

Here is why no Patriot fan should be discouraged over the loss today, even setting the playoff ramifications aside. Over the last three quarters, the Patriot second and third string were outscored by Miami's first string only 21-19. So, this highly touted Dolphin team which is on a six-game win streak and seemingly wanting to send a message to the Patriots almost lost anyway to Matt Cassel and his cast of scrubs. It was the Patriots that did the message sending, not the Dolphins.

You could see the disgust on Nick Saban's face as his charges rattled off field goal after field goal, and let Cassel lead the Patriots to touchdowns on their final two drives of the game. Basically, Gus Frerotte is no more a big time quarterback than Jay Fiedler was, and the Dolphin defense, which should have throttled Cassel and his gang, should be totally ashamed of themselves. Other than a third quarter safety where Cassel fumbled the ball out of the end zone, the first string Dolphin defense in the end had egg on its face as the Patriots toyed with them in the fourth quarter, even in defeat.

Analysis of this game should not at all focus on what the Patriots did wrong. Belichick managed this game perfectly, leading the Patriots to a loss they needed while still making it feel like a win. Here then is why Dolphin fans should be gnashing their teeth in anger, although they all are probably hooting and hollering over a win against a team literally wanting to lose.

Frerotte's numbers aren't all that bad (22 of 35, 239 yards, 92.4 passer rating). But most of this was against defenders like Hank Poteat, Bam Childress, Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders, Tully Banta-Cain, Matt Chatham, Larry Izzo, Mike Wright and Don Davis. Hobbs made some good plays but spent most of the game in soft zone coverage, giving up yards but no big plays. Marty Booker had seven catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, but most of that was against Poteat.

Ricky Williams had 108 yards rushing but averaged less than four yards a carry. He had a 16-yard touchdown run in the second quarter wiped out on a holding call on Jeno James, and the Dolphins had to settle for an Olindo Mare field goal. Michael Stone stuffed Ronnie Brown on a third and one run late in the second, forcing Miami to have to settle for another Mare field goal. It was only 13-10 Miami at the half.

The Dolphins opened the second half with a long drive which stalled at the Patriot 23, where Mare was forced to kick a 41-yard field goal. After Adam Vinatieri answered with a 33-yarder to make it 16-13 Miami, the Patriots made a defensive stop. But punter Donnie Jones pinned the Patriots back on their one-yard line, and on the first play Reggie Howard came in on a blitz and knocked the ball out of Cassel's hand and out of the end zone for a safety and an 18-13 Dolphin lead.

The Patriots answered this with a three-and-out, but the Dolphins countered with one of their own. Miami then drove 51 yards in eight plays, with Booker outrunning Childress into the end zone and catching a 15-yard scoring pass. Childress had been signed from the practice squad for this game, and played double duty as defensive back and wide receiver. It was 25-13 Miami at this time, and the Patriots looked like they were ready to roll over.

But Cassel finished brilliantly, against still the top Miami defensive unit in front of a grumpy crowd who wanted to see Flutie come in at quarterback. Cassel got things going with a nifty 30-yard pass to Ben Watson, then later found Tim Dwight from eight yards out for the touchdown. Flutie came in to try a two-point conversion (which at the time didn't seem logical with the Patriots trailing 25-19) as the crowd screamed in delight. Then Flutie dropped back about ten yards behind center, took the snap, and booted a perfect drop kick through the uprights as the crowd erupted in delirium. It was the first successful drop kick since 1941, and it left the Dolphins totally embarrassed.

Frerotte came back to hit Chambers on a 20-yard pass on third and six which set up Mare's fourth field goal of the game, but it was a one-score game at 28-20 as Cassel took over with 1:55 left in the game.

Cassel (11 of 20, two TDs, and a passer rating of 116.2) looked every bit like Brady, again with the second unit against the top Miami defensive unit. On third and 5, he hit Childress with a 22-yard pass to get the Patriots to the Miami 40 (again, this is third string hitting practice squad against the Miami first unit). Cassel then hit Davis for 11, then hit former Dolphin Heath Evans on a 25-yard screen pass, 16 of which were wiped out on a holding call on Davis, bringing up a strange third and one. Two plays later, Cassel sneaked for the first down at the Miami 18.

With sixteen seconds left, Cassel threw a seemingly game-ending interception in the end zone to Howard, but Jason Taylor was called for roughing the passer and the ball was moved to the Miami 9-yard line. Two plays later, with four seconds left, Cassel hit Watson for a nine-yard pass and a touchdown as time expired. It was 28-26 Miami, and the Patriots had a two-point conversion coming up which would have sent the game into overtime.

What happened next may cause a few eyebrows to raise. Cassel rolled right and had Childress open in the end zone and had an easy conversion. But Cassel overthrew him by a mile, and it looked like it was on purpose. Game over, Miami wins, but so do the Patriots. They now look forward to Jacksonville next week, and Miami gets a win they really ought to be ashamed of.

The only way this strategy backfires is if Pittsburgh wins in Cincinnati and the Patriots win next week. This would send Pittsburgh to Indianapolis, not the Patriots. But if the Patriots could somehow fix what ailed them in Denver earlier this year, and Pittsburgh is the one who knocks out the Colts, the Patriots get a home game for the AFC Championship.

Right now, it's all about Jacksonville and nothing else.

And Flutie will retire, join the Dropkick Murphys and compose another song which will motivate our local baseball team.