Scorned by tradition, despised by the bettors, the New England Patriots have muscled their way into the Super Bowl on the strength of 16 turnovers, a nasty defense and an offense out of the 1920s. They beat the Miami Dolphins 31-14 in the AFC Championship in the Orange Bowl on Sunday the same way they beat the Jets and the Raiders in the playoffs—by converting turnovers into points (24 of them), by running a lot (59 times) and by throwing a little (12 passes). They ganged up on quarterback Dan Marino's wideouts and turned Miami's passing game into a struggle for survival. Their line knocked the Dolphins off the ball, and two sets of running backs pounded them groggy. NFL Films will not honor the artistry of their offense with one of its slow, dreamy, musical soundtracks, and coach Ray Berry will not be hailed for the brilliance of his game plan. But, hey, they're in the Super Bowl, and the pages of history are loaded with reasons why they shouldn't be.
This is the team that couldn't win a playoff game, remember? Now it has won three. No club had ever gone through a three-game postseason series on the road to reach the Super Bowl. Now the Patriots have done it. They were betting underdogs in all three games. "We ran a lot of bookies out of business," halfback Robert Weathers said. Not bookies, Robert, bettors, the great betting public, the nonbelievers.
What was there to believe? Flukes had gotten the Pats into the championship game, right? They had scored a TD on a kickoff return by the other team in two straight playoff games. Make it three out of their last four games, counting the Monday night loss to Miami in week 15 of the regular season. When has that ever happened? The Orange Bowl was their personal house of horrors; they had lost 18 consecutive times to the Dolphins in that arena. The sun would come out and blister them; it would turn their legs to jelly. Defensive backs would wilt in the heat as they tried to chase those little Dolphin receivers all over the field. It had happened to Cleveland the week before. Why should the Patriots escape?
On Sunday morning destiny smiled on New England for the first time. The weather came up cool. By kickoff the temperature was only 64°. Rain clouds blotted out the sun. Then, at the end of the first half, a slow, persistent drizzle started.
January 20, 1986
A few Patriots said the weather was no factor. Hot or cold, rain or sun, it made no difference. This was their day. But the linemen, the big people, studied the sky and gave a small prayer of thanks. "Rain helped us more," left guard John Hannah said. "We're a power-type line. We like to push on 'em."
"Let's face it," added center Pete Brock. "Cool weather is just great for fat kids who require IV fluids."
Throughout the playoffs the Patriots have come on in the second half because they were the ones with the fresh legs. Berry has kept to a simple strategy: Run the ball, play for breaks, get a lead and sit on it, and sit and sit, throw only when you have to and avoid mistakes. The Big Eight approach to the NFL.
When New England was the Peyton Place of the NFL, you would have heard grumbles. How can you play Stone Age football in the 1980s? How can you take the quarterback out of the offense? But the older vets on the Patriots, the guys with the long memories, know that Berry has given them something that will make this approach, actually any approach, work. He has given them their legs. They had a short practice week going into the Saturday wild-card playoff against the Jets, and he gave them an extra day off. He gave them three days off from practice—Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—before the Dolphins game, and the workouts they had in Miami on the soggy, rain-soaked turf of Tropical Park Racetrack were three-quarter-speed affairs.
"Whatever we had to accomplish in practice," Berry said, "wasn't as important as having rested legs for the game. I've been giving them extra rest all season. I want fresh athletes. One of the worst things you can do is overwork a thoroughbred."
It's a philosophy born from 13 years as an NFL player, an approach more basic, and probably more sensible, than a whole blackboard full of fancy X's and O's. It could be the reason that the New England special team players constantly swarm the ball and knock it loose, that three Patriots are around every fumble and that guys are always hustling across the field to make that extra hit, to force that extra turnover. Privately, the Patriot players might smile at Berry's basic approach to NFL offense—Tony Eason threw only 16 passes against the Jets, 14 against the Raiders and those 12 on Sunday. That's 42 in three games, or six fewer than Marino threw last week. But the Pats also know that in Berry they have a valuable commodity, a coach who won't wear them out before the kickoff.
Another factor that makes this Patriot team different from all those self-destruct New England outfits of the past is defense. New England has never had the kind of dominating and physically punishing defense that it has now, and against Marino and the Dolphins, the Pats showed another dimension—great pass-coverage ability. Shut down the deep stuff to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, clamp down hard on the underneath pass patterns to Tony Nathan and Nat Moore, and you'll reduce Miami to a very ordinary team. The Dolphins' running game is an annoyance, but it won't beat you. Their defense can be had, provided you're not in a desperation situation, trying to match scores with the most feared point machine in the business. But to beat the Dolphins, you have got to get very serious with Don Shula's gang of pass catchers.
"I have good feelings about this game," New England defensive coordinator Rod Rust said on Friday. "We've been playing sound football. Our corner-backs have been covering extremely well. Our right linebacker, Don Blackmon, has been coming on, and I have no fears about putting him in man-to-man coverage. One thing you always know when you take on Shula's Dolphins is that they're going to execute their offense. You've got to be very sound against them because they feast on mistakes."
So do the Patriots, but in a more dramatic way—turnovers. In the playoffs, the Jets turned the ball over four times against them, the Raiders six. Seven of those 10 turnovers resulted in New England scores. Miami did not escape the plague. The Dolphins handed the ball to the Patriots six times, four times in their own territory. Each of those four produced a score.
Nathan fumbled on the Dolphins' 20 on Miami's first play from scrimmage, setting up a 23-yard Tony Franklin field goal. At the end of the first quarter, the Dolphins put together a long, carefully controlled drive. It ended 39 seconds into the second quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Marino to tight end Dan Johnson. New England came back with its second running back set, bringing in Weathers and Mosi Tatupu for Craig James and Tony Collins. The Pats drove 66 yards for the TD that made the score 10-7, the 222-pound Weathers setting it up with a 45-yard gallop around left end in which he broke three tackles.
"The play was designed inside, but it was clogged, so I took it wide," said Weathers. "They were grabbing at the ball, one guy had me around the waist. I just kept running." The payoff came on a four-yard Eason-to-Collins pass. Eason pumped once, waited for Collins to break loose inside and then drilled him. It was a nice read by Eason, who completed 10 of his 12 throws.
On the next Miami series Marino fumbled the snap on the Dolphins' 36. The Patriots took seven plays to get in the end zone again, this time on a one-yard, first-down pass to the second tight end, Derrick Ramsey. It was 17-7, and now Marino tried to work the middle of the field. The Patriot cornerbacks were covering the deep stuff well; they were outside-conscious. Miami reached the New England 16. Johnson dropped a TD pass, another throw went incomplete and then Fuad Reveiz missed a 31-yard field goal. Blackmon said something to him, and the rookie kicker slapped him across the face mask. "I sank to his level," Reveiz said. "I apologized later on."
The game was slipping away from the Dolphins, and things got worse in the third quarter when Lorenzo Hampton lost the opening kickoff on his own 25 after a solid hit by Tatupu. Six plays later, on fourth-and-one from the two, Eason found Weathers in the end zone. The score was 24-7, and New England sat on its lead. Eason would throw just two more passes, a six-yarder to Tatupu and a swing pass that Weathers dropped. Come and get us.
Early in the fourth quarter, New England's Roland James fumbled his second punt. On the next play Marino threw a 10-yard TD pass to Nathan to make the score 24-14. James, the strong safety, was returning punts because of a midweek mishap straight out of the Patriots' past. Irving Fryar, the NFL's leading punt returner, had cut a tendon in a finger on his right hand just before the Pats were scheduled to fly to Miami on Wednesday. Kitchen accident, said the first announcement...a knife was sticking out of a drawer, etc. However, it then came out that Fryar was injured in a scuffle with his pregnant wife of one year, Jacqueline. So on Sunday, Fryar was back in New England, and James was trying to do the best he could.
"In the last Super Bowl we got blown away in the second quarter," Shula said. "When we scored today to get within 10 points, I thought we had a chance. But the Raiders turned it over and we turned it over. You can't win that way."
The fifth Miami turnover, which turned the lights out early in the fourth quarter, came when halfback Joe Carter fumbled on the Dolphin 45. The James-and-Collins backfield had been on the bench for one series, but now it was back, with fresh wheels. "Alternating back-fields like that was great, it really was," said James, who carried 22 times for 105 of the Pats' 255 yards rushing. "When I got back in, I was ready to go."
The Dolphins' defense was worn out. It had been pounded by a relentless ground game and a drive of almost eight minutes in the third quarter. Now it sagged, and the Patriots rammed the ball in with nine consecutive running plays. Bob Brudzinski, Miami's left linebacker, made 19 unassisted tackles in the game, but the rest of the defense was overrun. The inside of the New England line—Hannah, right guard Ron Wooten and Brock, who had been sidelined with a knee injury the last time the teams met—was too strong. The Patriot cornerbacks, especially Raymond Clayborn on the right side, had won the battle against Duper and Clayton. Marino threw to Duper 13 times and got only three completions for 45 yards. Clayton's numbers weren't any better—11 passes thrown to him, three completions, 41 yards. The 31-year-old Clayborn had one of the greatest days in his nine years in the league—three completions out of the 15 passes thrown into his coverage, one end-zone interception.
"There were more passes thrown my way today than in any game in the last two years," he said. "I stayed fresh, though. We came into the game rested. At my age, every little bit of rest during the week helps."
Give Berry credit for understanding the physical makeup of the NFL athlete—and for erasing history, the odds and the Dolphins.