On a night when Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker were little more than footnotes, the Patriots still dominated the Dolphins 41-14 in Miami Gardens. If that doesn't make the rest of the league sit up and take notice, it should.
In recent seasons the Patriots (3-1) have gone as their offense goes. Coach Bill Belichick has been retooling the defense on the fly, and the growing pains have been obvious at times. But on Monday night, New England climbed into a first-place tie with the Jets in the AFC East -- thanks to dominant special teams and an opportunistic defense. Here's what we learned:
1. The Patriots can beat you with more than their offense. Brady threw for just 153 yards and Moss did not have a catch for the first time since 2006, yet New England prevailed because it scored touchdowns off a blocked field goal, a kickoff return and interception return. It also scored a touchdown two plays after a blocked punt. The performance was breathtaking not only in its completeness, but swiftness. Brandon Tate returned the second-half kickoff 103 yards for a score, then after a defensive stop, safety Patrick Chung blocked a punt to set up a touchdown two plays later. The14 points in 2:02 erased a 7-6 halftime deficit and New England never looked back.
2. The Dolphins are in trouble. In eight days, they went from undefeated and leading the rugged AFC East to third place and harboring serious issues about their quarterback and special teams. As if the two losses weren't bad enough for Miami (2-2), the defeats came at home against divisional foes. Those are double and triple whammies. Some thought quarterback Chad Henne might have turned the corner two Sundays ago with a strong showing against the Jets; but not anymore. Henne was awful against the Pats. The stats will show his 302 passing yards and two scores, but his three picks were lethal.
3. The victory should provide the Patriots with a needed confidence boost heading into the bye. Their psyche could have been shaken with a second division loss in three weeks (the Jets scored 21 straight to beat the Pats 28-14 on Sept. 19), but now they have time to prepare for what could be the defining stretch of their season. After returning from the bye, New England will host Baltimore, play at San Diego, host Minnesota, then, after a trip to Cleveland, face Pittsburgh on the road and Indianapolis at home.
4. The Dolphins spent nearly $50 million and two second-round draft picks on wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and they need to find a way to get him involved in games earlier. He was targeted only once in the first half and had no catches (his five receptions for 50 yards came in the second half). The previous week against the Jets, Marshall was targeted only once in the first quarter and five times in the first half. He finished with 10 catches for 166 yards and one score -- with all but four receptions and 43 yards coming after halftime -- so it begs the question of why Miami can't find a way to get him involved earlier.
5. Miami might want to rethink its decision to get rid of linebacker Rob Ninkovich. He appeared in only five games with the team in 2007 and '08 and managed just two tackles. But on Monday, he destroyed his former team with two interceptions, one sack and four tackles.
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