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Miami Is Division Title Obstacle Once Again

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
Dec 5, 2003 at 5:00am ET

Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday 12/7/03
4:15 PM EDT
Television: CBS
WBZ Channel 4 in Boston
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 704, 716, 930
2003 Team Records: Patriots 10-2
Dolphins 8-4
Latest Line: Patriots by 3
For a change, the Patriots are at least at home for this sort of thing.

In 1978, this writer enjoyed the marvelous sight of one of the biggest fan field rushes since October of 1967. David Posey, a fill-in kicker for the injured John Smith, booted a 26-yard field goal with time running out to give the Patriots a 26-24 win over Buffalo and the AFC East title. Delirious fans stormed the Schaefer Stadium field in much the same way Red Sox fans did after Rico Petrocelli caught this pop fly 11 years prior.

That was the first division title the Patriots had ever won since joining the NFL (they were a Wild Card in 1976). Since then, the Patriots have won division titles in 1986, 1996, 1997 and 2001. None of these titles were clinched at home, but two of them involved Sunday's opponent, the Miami Dolphins. And 2001 nearly did as the Patriots defeated Miami at home in the penultimate game, just before a series of events elsewhere gave the Patriots a playoff berth and the chance to win the division on the final week against a 1-14 Carolina team.

Both the 1986 and 1997 division titles were clinched at Miami, and on Monday nights. In 1986, the season following their unlikely run to Super Bowl XX, the Patriots played in the final regular season game in Orange Bowl history. Just one year after breaking a 19-year hex in that place by defeating Miami 31-14 to advance to the 20th Big Show, the Patriots bade that stadium farewell with a 34-27 win to nail down the division title (in their Super Bowl year, Miami won the division title and the Patriots made the playoffs as the second Wild Card team). Rod McSwain's interception return for a touchdown late in the game sealed the win for the Patriots.

Then in 1997, an odd chain of events saw the Patriots not only win a division title in Pro Player Park, but turn right around and face Miami at home the following week in the first round of the playoffs. The Patriots won both games, 14-12 in the division clincher at Miami, and 17-3 the following week at Foxborough. The playoff win completed a rare 3-0 mark over a division opponent in the same season (New England had won at home, 27-24 a month prior to the season finale). The Patriots knew the Dolphins so well that by the playoff game, Steve Sidwell's defense knew every audible Dan Marino was calling and defensed everything perfectly. On Todd Collins' interception return for a touchdown, for example, Chris Slade heard Marino's check at the line of scrimmage and altered New England's coverage instantly and accordingly.

Now in 2003, the Patriots have a chance to nail down a division title at home for the first time in 25 years. And appropriately, the Dolphins are the opponent.

Every time the Dolphins come to Foxborough in December (it seems that the schedule maker will always put Miami here in December and the Patriots down there when it's hot and humid), fans pine for the worst weather possible. Cold, rain, snow, and back to the cold again. Make it as arctic as possible for the Floridians, who supposedly cannot handle anything unless it's in a liquid or gaseous state.

Since the merger, the Patriots are 6-4 at home against Miami in December, and have won the last two such games. Included in this run was a 37-21 loss in 1972 to the 17-0 Dolphins, and the legendary 3-0 win in 1982 which featured Mark Henderson and his snowplow. Patriot Nation might look to the 20-13 win in 2001, the final regular season game at Foxborough Stadium, as their favorite in this series of games.

The weather forecast for Sunday is favorable for the Patriots. The Weather Channel says 31 degrees, 100 percent chance of snow, windy. Both and WCVB's website say "Periods of snow, heavy at times. Very windy and continued cold. Temperatures steady or slowly falling into the upper 20s. Chance of snow near 100 percent." Over at WBZ's website, they say "Snow of varying intensity finally tapering off to flurries by later Sunday afternoon", with a high of 32. WHDH describes Sunday by quoting the song Winter Wonderland.

In other words, Crockett and Tubbs will look a wee bit out of place at Gillette on Sunday.

The last time this region prayed for snow and got it, the opponent played much better than anyone thought they would. It took a landmark tuck rule call by Walt Coleman for the Patriots to finally overcome Oakland in the famous Snow Bowl of 2001. The Raiders said that the bad weather didn't bother them at all, though Patriot Nation figured that the temperate climate in the Bay Area would reduce them to little baby kittens in the cold and snowy environs of Foxborough.

All that said, the Patriots should still have the upper hand on Sunday. The elements will likely come into play, and the vaunted Dolphin running attack (read: Ricky Williams) will need to be at its best. But Williams didn't have to run into Ted Washington in the first meeting of these teams, won by the Patriots in overtime down in Miami two months ago. Expect Washington and his mates to treat Williams much the same way they did Edgerrin James last week.

But Miami could still win, and they could do so in several ways.

The Patriots also did not face Jay Fiedler in October. Fiedler can handle the cold weather, having played his college ball at Dartmouth. Fiedler has the hot hand right now, though Brian Griese is a better pure quarterback and Miami never should have jettisoned Damon Huard. Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel will need to address this, though the inclement weather should slow Chris Chambers, James McKnight and Derrius Thompson quite a bit.

Miami will also have a revenge factor working. They had every reason to believe that they were going to win the first meeting, but two missed field goals by Olindo Mare proved fatal for the Fish. Both missed treys were kicked off of the dirt infield, as the Florida Marlins were in the midst of their World Series run at that time. They thought they were the better team then, so they may play with even more fury on Sunday to make up for that unprecedented Patriot win.

Even with Washington, stopping Williams is not a given for the Patriots. Williams bombed the Patriots last year in Foxborough, gaining 185 yards on 31 carries, and he did so largely by running outside and attacking Mike Vrabel. The Patriots adjusted in the second half and put Roman Phifer out there to defend Williams, and he was held to "only" 65 yards in the second half. That plus horrid play calling by Norv Turner helped the Patriots rally to win.

In addition to the weather, the Patriots have the possible advantage of not having to deal with Zack Thomas, listed as questionable (as is Junior Seau). All that aside, the snow and icy weather should slow down the team speed of the Miami defense, and make Jason Taylor that much more manageable for Matt Light.

It should be a terrific game, and the Patriots will be hot for the division title on an otherwise very cold and clammy day. Miami will be hotter, but in the end may not be able to overcome Mother Nature.

But just to be sure, Dave Wannstedt needs to know Henderson's whereabouts at all times.

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