Pats overcome obstacles, history in Miami

All the rhetoric about guts and perseverance fittingly applied to the Pats after their win over Miami.

Updated: October 19, 2003, 10:58 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- In most circumstances when a coach cites his team's resolve following a gritty victory accomplished more with tenacity than talent, the post-game rhetoric is considered hackneyed, little more than worn-out words from a back chapter of the sideline manual.

But when Bill Belichick summoned up many of the old favorites Sunday afternoon -- character, guts, mental toughness -- those words were decidedly trite and true. No better way, acknowledged several New England Patriots veterans, to describe their 19-13 overtime win here against the Miami Dolphins.

Tom Brady
AP PhotoTom Brady always gives the Patriots reason to feel good.
The victory, at least in the box score, will be attributed to wide receiver Troy Brown's 82-yard touchdown catch, with 5:45 remaining in the extra period. But if Brown streaked by Miami safeties Sammy Knight and Brock Marion on the winning catch, as if he were a scared rabbit, the Pats prevailed to win here for the first time since 1997 largely because New England demonstrated the perseverance of the determined tortoise.

Quite simply, they kept plugging away, somehow managing to always keep what seemed to be a competitively lopsided contest within striking range.

Absent 13 players who were either starters in training camp, or were replacement starters because of injuries, the Patriots had their pick of convenient excuses for another loss in a stadium that had recently been a house or horrors for them.

They opted, instead, for alchemy over alibis.

Following some early lurches, in which everything the Patriots touched seemed to turn to disaster, New England found a way to transform grotesque to gold. Not surprisingly, the primary component was an uncanny ability to avoid the knockout punch, to hang around long enough for something good to happen.

"Our guys overcame the heat, the circumstances, just about every situation imaginable, you name it," said Belichick, who once again displayed his incredible knack for readying a team shy of ambulatory bodies. "They're physical guys, tough-minded, really, and it's hard to even put into words how proud I am for getting beyond that stuff."

It is difficult even for some New England players to believe that, after a blowout defeat at Buffalo in the season opener, the Patriots have won five of six outings. At 5-2, they now lead the AFC East, and own a three-game winning streak. In addition to the victory over the Dolphins, the Patriots also defeated Tennessee to begin the current skein, and have a home game against the schizophrenic Cleveland Browns next weekend.

This is clearly, agreed quarterback Tom Brady, an assemblage that features one essential common denominator.

"Character is one thing our coaches preach about all the time," said Brady, who until the bomb to Brown, had just one completion of more than 20 yards. "You look up and down our roster, and everybody feels we're in every game, no matter what's happening. … I just think it's a team where guys believe in each other and in the coaches. And we're sort of accustomed, at this point, to dealing with adversity."

The latest setback occurred in pregame warmups when two defensive starters, cornerback Ty Law and defensive end/linebacker Willie McGinest, found that their injuries were too much with which to play. Veteran Tyrone Poole started in place of Law and, switching to a 4-3 front instead of the 3-4 alignment with which New England began the season, Jarvis Green started at end.

There were so many lineup changes on the New England "flip card," in fact, the press box announcer had to go through them three times. You know the famous Revolutionary War picture, with the three bandaged kids limping along with a drum and a flute and flag, right? New England owner Bob Kraft might order up a decal of that scene for the sides of his team's helmets.

As a result of the injuries, the Patriots started two rookies in the secondary, and fully half of their 22 starters on Sunday were in positions they weren't projected to play.

Hey, it would be easy to curse our luck, with all the injuries, the (stuff) that we've had to overcome. But we're proof that, if you keep working at it, you can get through anything.
Pats tailback Kevin Faulk

"Yeah, we're like a hospital ward," said strong safety Rodney Harrison, the allegedly used-up 10-year veteran signed as an unrestricted free agent, whose career resurrection continued Sunday with 12 tackles, one pass defensed, a forced fumbled and a recovery. "But I've never been around guys with so much character. If you're going to beat us, you better come with a wooden stake, or maybe a silver bullet. We don't die very easily."

New England stayed alive on Sunday because of equal parts pluck, luck and design.

With two minutes remaining in regulation, emerging star defensive lineman Richard Seymour rose up in the middle of a placement scrum to swat away Olindo Mare's 35-yard field goal attempt. Then less than three minutes into the extra session, perhaps with the blocked kick slightly psyching him out, Mare was wide right from 35 yards.

The Patriots also overcame what has come to be a maddeningly conservative passing game, heavy on screen passes and checkdowns, and a rushing attack that averaged a puny two yards per carry. There were some dubious calls from the officials and one strange sequence at the overtime coin toss, when the Pats felt they had won the option, but the officials ruled their call of "tails" was incorrect.

But if there is one reliable constant with the Patriots, it is defense, and that was the case again on Sunday, in limiting a Miami offense that is itself highly predictable. Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel during the week designed a five-man front, designed to slow Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams, and decided to use it heavily and dare Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler to make plays.

So effective was the even-man front, with a lineman directly covering each of Miami's three interior blockers, that the Patriots stuck with it virtually every early down. Even though Williams rushed for 94 yards on 27 carries, he had just three rushes for double digit yards, and two of those came in the overtime.

And while tight end Randy McMichael proved to be a coverage problem, as he posted career bests in catches (eight) and yards (102) working mostly against Harrison and linebacker Roman Phifer, the Miami outside receivers weren't effective enough to force the Patriots to make tough adjustments or abandon the five-man front and commit more bodies to coverage.

"I guess if I had Ricky (Williams) on my team, and I was the coach, I'd run him most of the time, too," Seymour said. "But, hey, our coaches always have something pretty good up their sleeves, you know? The Miami linemen, they took a while to get accustomed to our front, and we confused them pretty good most of the day. We did a lot of the little things good today and then, when we needed it most, we got the big play to win. Kind of funny that, after slugging it out all day, we won on a big knockout punch."

That punch, delivered by Brady and Brown, came on the first snap after Poole picked off a Fiedler deep ball thrown up the right sideline for wideout Chris Chambers. The score provided the Pats their first win ever in Miami in the first two months of any season, the club having a combined September-October mark here of 0-13 entering the game.

It marked the third consecutive overtime loss for Miami, two of them to New England.

"This was," said Patriots guard Damien Woody, "a long time coming."

On the touchdown, Brady pumped to his left, and had wide receiver Deion Branch coming across on a short slant to the backside of the formation, but then the quarterback was flushed deeper into the pocket by the Miami four-man rush. As he slid to his left to buy time, Brown was moving from right to left on a deep post, and split the safeties.

The long arc hit Brown in perfect stride at about the Miami 30-yard line, and he sprinted past Marion and Knight for the score. An emotional Belichick flipped his headset into the air, the Pats mobbed Brown in the end zone, and the large contingent of Patriots fans in the sellout crowd erupted with glee.

If their baseball team is still hounded by an infamous curse, the Patriots faithful can at least cease any discussion about a similar jinx existing in Miami, huh?

"Hey, it would be easy to curse our luck, with all the injuries, the (stuff) that we've had to overcome," said tailback Kevin Faulk. "But we're proof that, if you keep working at it, you can get through anything. You look around this room. There's no one feeling sorry for themselves. We just feel like we've got strong people who can get the job done."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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