December 07, 2003
“Snow Foolin’”: Division Champs Tops In AFC
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
FOXBOROUGH -- How good is Tom Brady? When you can't complete your passes, there's always the old pooch punt play.
Not that new punter Brooks Barnard did poorly, but Brady stole the show in the closing moments of Sunday's snowfest at Gillette Stadium. With two minutes left in this game, played in conditions which were better fit for Frosty the Snowman, the Winter Warlock or the Abominable Snow Monster, and facing fourth and ten at the Miami 37, Brady lined up in a shotgun formation. He took the snap, and plopped a perfect punt which was downed by David Givens at the Dolphin 1. Four plays later, Jarvis Green sacked Jay Fiedler in the end zone for a safety, and the Patriot thrashing of the frozen Fish was complete.
Calling the Fish "frozen" is fitting, but it unfairly describes how well Miami played this game. The Patriots merely played it better, as they have done all along during this nine-game win streak. With neither offense able to get untracked on a cold, snowy and windy evening at Foxborough, the Patriots used a field goal by Adam Vinatieri which sailed literally over an upright, an interception return for a touchdown by Tedy Bruschi, and the aforementioned safety to blank Miami, 12-0. Delirious fans were tossing and flinging snow in the air with regularity following the Bruschi score, as many of the Gillette Stadium seats were buried under two-foot drifts of snow.
The win was huge for the Patriots. It clinched the AFC East title, their second in three years. Combined with Kansas City's 45-27 loss at Denver, the Patriots (11-2) moved into first place in the AFC, and now control their own destiny towards the one seed in the playoffs. If the Patriots and Chiefs both win out, the Patriots would get home field for the playoffs based upon a better conference record.
It was an afternoon where punting, field position and turnovers ruled, and the Patriots reigned supreme in each area. Neither team was able to get a running game going, which proved both the terrific ability of the Patriots to stop the run, as well as the glaring decline in the skills of Antowain Smith. Because of this, both defenses were able to overplay the pass, and the Patriots stood toe to toe with the Dolphins until the breaks came along which decided the contest.
Both teams totaled 21 punts. Brady and Barnard combined for 11 punts, tying a team record. Barnard had only a 36.5 gross punting average, but four of his ten punts were inside the Miami 20, and he shanked only one of his punts, a 26-yarder midway through the third period. In a game like this, Barnard was effective in helping the Patriots pull off the shutout, as the average starting drive position for Miami was their own 27-yard line.
Punting was never more at a premium than this game. Nine of Miami's 15 offensive drives were three-and-outs. Seven of the 15 Patriot offensive drives similarly ended in such futility. Going further, only one of six Dolphin drives in the first half went more than three plays. The Patriots went through a six-of-seven stretch of three-and-outs, and did not achieve a first down in the entire third quarter. And on the eighth drive of that stretch, the Patriots mustered only one play, a 15-yard gain on a pass play by Kevin Faulk before he was blasted by Brock Marion and coughed up the ball. Jay Williams recovered the loose ball for Miami at the New England 45, but the drive ended quickly after only seven yards gained.
Only four times did Miami drive into Patriot territory. Two of those drives ended in turnovers, one of which took place at the Patriot 10. In the third quarter, the Dolphins drove 53 yards to the Patriot 10, their best drive of the game, helped by a freak catch by Oronde Gadsden for 23 yards after Chris Chambers deflected a pass up in the air. On third and three at the Patriot 10, Rodney Harrison came in on a safety blitz and clobbered Fiedler, jarring the ball loose. Richard Seymour would have lumbered for a touchdown had he been able to pick up the loose ball, but he bobbled it and Mike Vrabel eventually fell on it. The Dolphins would never seriously threaten to score again.
Barnard's best punt came with 8:59 left in the final period, which left Miami pinned back at its own 4-yard line. On the first play, Fiedler dropped back and tried to hit Chambers on a quick slant in from the right side. Bruschi cleverly hid behind the onrushing Bobby Hamilton, read Fiedler's eyes, then leapt in the air at the exact instant Fiedler released the quick slant pass. The play went bang-bang, Bruschi snared the laser and rumbled five yards into the end zone. He fell down to his knees, and his happy fans began to throw fistfuls of snow into the air.
Two drives later, Fiedler took over at the Patriot 45. After two incompletions, Fiedler tried to hit Chambers in the right flat for 13 yards. Law stepped in front of Chambers and made the pick. The Patriots took over and held the ball for just under three minutes, forcing the Dolphins to burn their final two timeouts.
Neither Ricky Williams nor Smith were effective at power running. Williams gained 68 yards and was held to 2.7 yards per carry. But Smith averaged only 2.2 yards per carry, and that included a 20-yard run in the fourth quarter which skewed another miserable day for the former Patriot powerhouse. On a day where his power running was never more needed, Smith again showed that this is a position which needs major addressing next year in the draft. As for Williams, credit Ted Washington and the rest of the interior Patriot rushing defense for flat-out brilliant play all game long.
Brady and Fiedler also suffered through miserable days. Brady barely completed more passes than not, but was sacked three times and had a passer rating of 67. Fiedler fared far worse, completing only 13 of 31 passes for 111 yards and two picks. He was sacked five times, and finished with a passer rating of only 25.1. But while Fiedler was harassed all game long by Patriot defenders, Brady was more of a victim of some dropped passes and receivers who simply could not get open.
With trap city on deck next weekend with Jacksonville in town, the Patriots have a clear shot at a number one seed in the conference ahead. The next Patriot win will establish a franchise record for most wins in a season, and the one remaining pure losable game is in two weeks at the Meadowlands. As Charlie Weis tries to figure out how to squeeze more yards out of his feeble offense, Romeo Crennel sits back with pride and begins to figure out how to take Byron Leftwich to school next week.
Meanwhile, the fans may still be frolicking in the snow at Gillette, and may not get home until the gates open for next week's contest. The Dolphins are division contenders "snow" more, and the Patriots are setting their sights on the cold, rarefied air of a possible one seed.
The weather outside may be frightful, but Patriot Nation sure is delightful right now.
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