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Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Updated: May 31, 2:27 PM ET
A true stomach-puncher

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

When I was growing up in New England, the Patriots played the Dolphins every December ... and every December, the Patriots lost. Most kids remember Santa Claus around the holidays. I remember Uwe von Schamann belting game-winners. That's just the way it was.

Now we're in a different millennium. The Pats have evolved into the most successful NFL franchise of the decade, winning two Super Bowl rings and flaunting the most successful coach-QB pairing since Walsh and Montana. Meanwhile, the Dolphins lost their mystique with Dave Wannstedt's annual Hannukah collapse, finally hitting rock bottom with a two-win season and the Ricky Williams Saga. When the two teams met in Miami Monday night, it seemed like the perfect time to exorcise those old Shula Era demons once and for all.

Just for fun, I thought I'd keep a running diary. Here's what transpired ...

6:01 in sunny L.A. -- ABC's telecast kicks off with a comedy bit involving the Dolphins mascot, the Patriots mascot and Dr. Phil. I'll let you guess how it turned out.

6:02 -- Al Michaels on the Pats: "They are 12-1. They've won six straight. They were 14-2 last year. They've won 24 of their last 25 regular-season games, plus, of course, the three postseason games last year -- their second Super Bowl title in the last three years -- and they think they're their way to their third title in the last four seasons. They are a purring machine."

(Yup, that pretty much sums it up.)

6:03 -- John Madden on the Pats: "I thought we'd never see a dynasty again, but this is as close to a dynasty as I think you can get."

(Come on, guys, really ... I'm blushing here...)

6:05 -- The line: Patriots by 10. In the season of the Can't-Miss Three-Team Tease. I can neither confirm or deny that a simple Patriots victory (even if they win by one) would put me two steps closer to buying that summer house next to Red and Andy in Zihuatenejo.

6:07 -- Fashion note: Miami is wearing orange uniforms. If we're allowing teams to shamelessly sell their souls for some extra merchandising money, why not allow them to change their last name depending on the game? For instance, Miami could have been the "Miami Vice" tonight and worn white linen uniforms with aqua blue pants. What's the difference? There's no tradition left, anyway.

6:10 -- Hey, ever think about stuff like, "If I were an NFL starter, how would I say my name and my college during the Monday night football introductions?"

(Well, I have. I would give the "Bill Simmons, College of the Holy Cross" instead of just the "Holy Cross," to squeeze the extra three words in for more camera time. And I think I would grow a cheesy porn mustache just for the occasion. But that's just me.)

6:11 -- Corey Dillon runs for 21 yards to start the game. According to my calculations, he needs 500 yards and four TDs for me to catch the Pasta Express in my East Coast roto league this week. I'm not feeling too good.

6:13 -- Our first glimpse of the Master, Jim Bates. He's the interim coach for the Dolphins. It's a little-known rule in sports that interim coaches should always look like A) they just woke up; B) they're wearing someone else's clothes; and C) they have the same glazed, overwhelmed look of an NBA fan who just got plucked out of the stands to attempt a halfcourt shot.

6:15 -- The Pats bring in D-lineman Richard Seymour for two straight successful "third and short" situations. That reminds me, you'll know Bob Ley has officially run out of "Outside the Lines" topics when "Are big defensive players slowly phasing out fullbacks?" becomes the topic for a show.

6:16 -- Brady lobs it to Faulk coming out of the backfield ... touchdown! 7-0, Patriots. The Pats have scored first in 19 straight games. Yet another NFL record for the so-called luckiest team on the planet.

6:21 -- I love when announcers use the phrase "goes to work" with a QB, only it's a QB like A.J. Feeley. Seriously, what does it mean when someone says, "Now A.J. Feeley goes to work"? Is that good for his team or the other team? We need to figure this out.

6:23 -- The Dolphins go three-and-out after a Feeley sack-and-fumble (recovered by the Dolphins). "That's Feeley's problem," Madden says. "He has a tough time with a pass rush, he has a tough time with a blitz, he has a tough time getting the ball out quickly." Other than that, he's fantastic.

6:26 -- Let's be honest: They're gonna need tasers, explosives and possibly even one of those bazooka guns to drag Dennis Franz off the "NYPD Blue" set. No, no, Dennis, you can't be the star of a TV show anymore ... it's over ... but "Celebrity Jeopardy" called, they're very interested ...

6:29 -- All right, two amazing things here: First, the Dolphins have a white guy named Welker returning kicks. Second, this same white guy just ran a Patriots punt back 71 yards to the 2-yard line. Of course he did.

6:32 -- Touchdown, Dolphins. Tie game. Twenty years ago, I would have been hyperventilating.

6:37 -- This seems like a good place to mention that Bill Belichick is wearing a red Pats sweatshirt. Whatever happened to the days of NFL coaches wearing sport jackets and fedoras and holding rolled up newspapers clenched in their hands? Shouldn't they make this mandatory again?

6:41 -- The Dolphins hand off on 3rd-and-30 to Sammy Morris, who can't get back to the line of scrimmage. Wouldn't a stoned Ricky Williams still be a better option than any of these scrubs?

6:46 -- Both offenses are struggling. Madden was right -- Brady always stinks against the Dolphins for some reason. It's like me and the Mirage casino. I just can't win there. Brady sees those aqua uniforms and ... oh, wait, they're wearing orange tonight.

6:51 -- Madden touts old Raider Art Shell for the vacant Dolphins job. I have to admit, the thought of the worst clock management coach in NFL history back in action ... that's pretty appetizing. I'm not even sure Shell knew that there was a clock during games. He thought both teams kept playing until it became dark.

6:53 -- I like Michele Tafoya. Really, I do. Unfortunately, she's too good. I want my sideline reporters to screw up, say dumb things, get their facts wrong, seem wildly uncomfortable ... since it's such a thankless job, and since they rarely have anything substantial to report, why do we need someone competent in that role? Can't we have someone who's an ongoing train wreck? Wouldn't you rather have Eric Dickerson back? What about the dramatic TV debut of Ricky Williams? Or Mike Tyson?

7:01 -- During a long Pats drive, Madden gushes, "Nobody is calmer in the pocket than Tom Brady." Come on, John -- what about Peyton Manning gunning for his 7th TD in the fourth quarter of a 42-10 blowout against a 2-10 team?

7:03 -- That was a grueling Patriots drive: 12 plays, 10 runs, 54 yards and a Dillon TD. 14-7, Patriots. And the Dolphins don't have a first down yet.

7:08 -- The big news: There's been a Michael Keaton sighting! He's starring in an upcoming movie called "White Noise." Look out, Tom Hanks -- this rivalry isn't over yet! Do you think Keaton can even make eye contact with Hanks at this point? It must be like one of the guys from "21 Jump Street" running into Johnny Depp.

7:10 -- According to Tafoya, she asked Feeley's old QB coach, "What is the one thing that could make or break Feeley's NFL career?" and the guy responded: "That's easy -- throwing the ball to the defense." But if he can just get that under wraps ...

7:11 -- Three straight first downs for the Dolphins. Madden is doing an excellent job of pointing out how the Dolphins need to throw on first down so they're not stuck with third-and-longs. It's nice to hear someone analyze a football game without resorting to the "I want you to watch this replay right now, watch what happens right here, watch this!" routine.

7:14 -- Finish this sentence: "When he goes back to pass, A.J. Feeley stares down his first receiver like ..."

(I'm going with this one: "... like a drunk college freshman staring down a hot senior.")

7:18 -- Miami settles for a field goal: 14-10, Pats. I'm openly checking my e-mails.

7:20 -- Best ABC-related sign in the stands so far (in multi-colored letters):

Al + John
Bring
Chrismas

(Did they realize they spelled "Christmas" wrong before the game? Did they say, "Ah, screw it, we already made the sign, nobody will notice? Do they even know it's spelled wrong? See, if I was running ABC, this is how I would use my sideline reporter -- to find out things like this.)

7:24 -- Madden is still excited because the Pats unveiled a defense with no linemen for the third-down play. That's right, the first-ever 0-6-5. "We saw A.J. Feeley coming off the field and he had kind of a perplexed look," Madden tells us. Actually, he always looks like that, John.

7:25 -- On third down, Brady throws a 50-yard pass into double coverage for an interception ... and nobody says the requisite "that was just like a punt" line. That hurts.

7:27 -- After a half-hearted two-minute drive, Miami downs a punt on the 2-yard line, leading to the PA announcer playing that "Woo-hoo!" song by Blur. That song is to NFL games what "Hey Ya" is to NBA games and any strip joint song is to NHL games ... you know, if we still had the NHL.

(Whoops ... we're headed to halftime. Pats 14, Dolphins 10. And since the Dooze is staring me down like A.J. Feeley, let's take a break.)

* * * * *

7:43 -- We're back. Highlights from halftime included ... well, there weren't any highlights. Let's just say Shaq, Usher and Terrell Owens were prominently involved. You know, with all the technology we have now, couldn't they CGI Howard Cosell and have CGI Cosell narrate the weekend highlights? Who would be against this? Anybody?

7:44 -- Tafoya tells us that Belichick told her before the third quarter, "I was so upset in the locker room at halftime, I started whipping my feces around like a monkey in a cage." All right, I made that up. But has the halftime interview ever yielded anything? What's the coach going to say? The Dolphins suck. I can't believe we're only up by four.

7:47 -- Following a Dolphins fumble, Brady converts a third-and-long for 21 yards to Patten, helped by a fantastic block from Corey D. Now the Pats are inside the 30 and, well ... you can see where this is going.

7:50 -- Actually, you can't. Brady just threw a GNARLY interception inside the 30. At the rate we're going, Belichick could break the record for "most cutaways with a coach holding both hands against his head."

(This is a textbook Pats game in the Brady Era -- every time they look like they're pulling away, they find a way to keep the other team hanging around for a little while before they finally finish them off. It's uncanny. One of these weeks, they're going to end up doing this against the wrong team. Let's just hope it doesn't happen in January.)

7:54 -- I'm not sure what's worse -- the fact that they're making a fake movie about "Dynasty" with actors playing Joan Collins, Linda Evans and everyone else, or the fact that I was disappointed it wasn't just a "Dynasty" reunion show. I mean, did you see the "Dallas" reunion? You could have ski-jumped off Larry Hagman's eyebrows.

7:56 -- With the Dolphins driving, Madden notices cornerback Earthwind Moreland and wonders when the Dolphins will start attacking him. Two plays later, Troy Brown blitzes on a key third-down play, only he slows down when he reaches Feeley ... giving him an extra split-second to complete a first down. And I guess my point is this: It's hard to feel 100 percent comfortable in any game when your secondary includes a converted wide receiver and a guy named after a '70s R & B group.

7:59 -- Touchdown, Dolphins. They're up by three. Whatever.

8:03 -- Hey here's a sentence you never hear: "Did you see 'Alias' last night?"

8:04 -- The Pats are trailing in the second half for the second time all season. That leads Madden to say, "But don't you get the feeling that they still know how to play when they're behind? That, even though they don't do it a lot, Tom Brady's going to stay cool, and somewhere between now and the end of the game, he's going to do what they have to do to win this game?"

(Yup ... I get that feeling. That's what happens when you win 27 of 28 games -- you don't panic during the Belichick-Brady Era. You just don't. They're like the Celtics in the mid-'80s. You're always in good hands.)

8:11 -- Nine-play drive, third and goal, Belichick holding his hands behind his head again ... and Brady tosses a short TD pass to Dillon. 21-17, Pats. I'd love to see Brady's stats on the drive following a sequence where he threw an interception that led to an opposing touchdown. His QB rating has to be like 435.4 in that scenario.

8:17 -- Question: Couldn't they cross "Pimp My Ride" with "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and have the guys from West Coast customs start overhauling trailers? You're telling me you wouldn't watch "Extreme Makeover: White Trash Edition"?

8:19 -- Heading into the fourth quarter, we're almost in "Feeley throws an interception for the game-clinching TD" range. Meanwhile, our local news guy pops in with this tease: "The popular painkiller that may increase your chances for a stroke ... coming up at 11!"

Your life could be in serious danger, and we're not ready to tell you why! You have to wait two more hours!

8:25 -- Madden and Michaels move into "let's debate whether Charlie Weis's new Notre Dame gig is affecting his duties for the Pats" mode, with the added bonus that Madden keeps calling him "Charlie Wise." In his defense, Madden is about 10 years older than my dad, who's probably unconscious on the sofa right now.

8:27 -- Nope, dad's awake. Just called him. "I'm tired of these games where we keep the other team hanging around," he says. I never imagined that we would be complaining about a Pats team that's won 27 of their last 28. Is this what it's like to be a Yankee fan?

(Speaking of Weis, as someone who once tried to juggle two gigs at the same time, lemme tell you something: One can't help but affect the other. Do I blame Weis for taking the Notre Dame gig? No. Do I think it will significantly affect his responsibilities to the Patriots through January? Yes. Is this a potentially bad thing? Remains to be seen. But I don't think it's a good thing, that's for sure.)

8:28 -- Michaels sees the Krafts in the owner's box and drops this doozy: "When you look at what they've done, this has very much become the model franchise, not just in the NFL but in all the North American team sports."

(Read that last sentence again. Al Michaels was talking about the New England Patriots. How crazy is that? We could have a Corey Haim-Corey Feldman presidential ticket and it wouldn't be any less improbable than the Patriots becoming the model franchise in professional sports.)

8:34 -- Here's something that always cracks me up: Because Monday Night Football ends around 9:15 here, the local ABC station runs a filler postgame show in prime time called "The Sports Zone," hosted by the immortal Rob Fukazaki. Rob's guest tonight? Phillies pitcher Cory Lidle. Meanwhile, CBS has "Everyone Loves Raymond," "Two And a Half Men" and "CSI: Miami" at the same time. Slight edge, CBS.

8:36 -- The Pats methodically drive down to the Miami 30. Six minutes to go. Tons of Brady praise right now, including Madden saying, "The two things that impress me about him right now are his coolness and his toughness" and "If I wanted to start a team, I'd start it with this guy."

(And since I have nothing else to add, how could ABC let this whole game pass without showing some old Dolphins-Pats highlights? Is it because they're worried we wouldn't recognize the old uniforms?)

8:39 -- Touchdown, Patriots! Brady throws a play-action pass to Daniel Graham, set up by a 20-yard run by Dillon (who's over 100 yards again). With four minutes remaining, it's 28-17. Only one question remains: Can the Pats cover?

8:42 -- Dad and I have another congratulatory phone call, highlighted by dad babbling about the wonders of HDTV. No non-stoned person has ever enjoyed HDTV more than my dad. It's not possible. He even enjoys seeing John Madden in high definition.

8:48 -- Just to screw over all the "Pats -10" money, Miami drives for an apparently meaningless TD. Now it's 28-23 with 2:07 remaining. What's more unbelievable, the fact that Miami covered this game, or the fact that Feeley has played four quarters without throwing an interception? Probably a tossup.

8:53 -- Smart move by Miami here: Kicking deep instead of trying an onside kick. Now the Pats need at least one first down to clinch the game. It's funny how an interim coach didn't screw this decision up, and yet 20 bonafide NFL coaches probably would have.

8:55 -- Uh-oh. Somehow it's third-and-9 from the Pats 20 with 1:53 remaining ... and the Dolphins have two timeouts left. Why is my heart pounding?

8:57 -- Wow. Wow. Wow. Brady just made the worst play of his career -- a "Why am I throwing this?" interception as he was being yanked down from behind. Even Jake Plummer wouldn't have made that throw. All right, that's not true. But you can't kill Brady enough for that decision. It's not possible. Worst play of his career. He never does stuff like that.

"I guess he's not perfect," Michaels says. I guess not. Now he needs the defense to bail him out.

9:00 -- Terrifying third-down play where Moreland broke up a lob pass in the end zone without ever turning towards the QB. Looked like pass interference. We'll see if the Football Gods make up for that one ...

9:03 -- Touchdown, Dolphins. Feeley to Thompson: A fourth-down lob pass from the 22 with the Pats blitzing. You can officially say that the Pats don't deserve to win this game. And yet there's 1:23 remaining on the clock ...

9:08 -- Brady gets sacked on first down. Not good.

9:09 -- Brady throws an interception. Ballgame.

(Hold on, I'm not done punching things.)

(OK.)

And yes, even though Miami's improbable comeback took over 20 minutes, it felt like two. My head is spinning. So what did we learn? A few things.

1. Thanks to tonight's debacle, if the Patriots plan on making the Super Bowl again, they need to go through the Burgh to do it.

2. Don't snap and start punching a coffee table when you're not finished with a column. Typing with a swollen hand is not fun. At all.

3. Vegas always manages to turn the tables when you least expect it. Always. You should never be surprised when Tom Brady turns into A.J. Feeley and vice-versa.

4. The amazing thing about the Patriots' recent 27-for-28 run? That this type of game didn't happen more often. Good teams lose plenty of games because they squandered an 11-point lead with four minutes to play, or because someone completed a pseudo-Hail Mary on them, or because their star QB inexplicably crapped the bed for no reason ... these things happen all the time in football, and at least three times a month to the Seahawks. To Belichick and the Patriots? Never. They were due. Overdue, even.

Then again, the more things change, the more they change the same. It's December and the Pats just lost a Stomach Punch Game in Miami.

(What year is this again?)

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.