- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots' list of inactives for Sunday's game resembled their wide receiver depth chart. Deion Branch, Troy Brown, Bethel Johnson -- all out against the Dolphins, who had the league's best pass defense coming in.
But Miami left Gillette Stadium as it entered -- winless -- in part because the Patriots' offense, as it often does, did just enough to win. The magic number turned out to be 204 total yards, 69 passing.
On a good day, Brady distributes his passes among seven, maybe eight receivers. But he didn't need to have a good day Sunday. He just needed to have a "good enough" day. At the end of it, his stat line looked like one that ordinarily belongs to a Dolphins quarterback: seven completions, 19 attempts, 76 yards. Brady tossed two short touchdowns and one early, and ultimately harmless, pick. He went 0-for-4 in the second half. David Givens caught four passes and three other receivers one apiece. Brady's quarterback rating was a mere 62.6 -- more than 40 points lower than his rating through three games.
But his winning percentage continued to climb because the bottom line read just as it has in every meaningful game New England has played since Week 5 of last season. Brady has now won 38 of 50 regular-season starts to go with a 6-0 postseason record.
His rough afternoon included a swollen bottom lip and several stitches in his chin, but at least he wasn't hurting from a loss, too, right?
"We didn't play as well as we would have liked," Brady said after the Patriots' 24-10 victory, their league-record 19th in a row. "Fortunately, the defense played well and limited them to 10 points. And I'm just glad we had 24."
New England was so short at receiver that Kevin Kasper, signed last week and assigned No. 10, was the third receiver on Saturday, and rookie P.K. Sam, active for the first time last week against Buffalo, was the No. 4 guy.
Branch, the team's leading receiver last year, has missed the last two games with a knee injury. Brown, the Patriots' most experienced wideout, hurt his shoulder last week. And Johnson, whom the team benched last year for a game for disciplinary reasons, sat yesterday because of a "coach's decision." That left the giant task of making plays against Miami's defense to the Davids -- Givens and Patten -- a pair of receivers who once upon a time no one wanted but who came into the game each averaging more than 20 yards per reception.
They were in for a tough time Sunday, and they knew it.
"It's pressure every week," said Patten, a long shot to make the team as a free agent in 2001 who has managed to stick around even though, coming off a knee injury, his chances of doing so didn't look so good this offseason. "But when you don't have your boys out there," he continued, "I mean, we really count on Troy and Deion. We feel like the strength of our corps is numbers. We feel like when everybody's on the field we're second to none, but when somebody's missing, it's that much more pressure on you to get open, especially when you're facing good cornerbacks like Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain."
Miami likes to "combo" cover with man-to-man underneath and two safeties helping deep. "They make it tough to throw," Brady said. "They don't come out of that split safety look. They always have help deep and they always try to undercut everything short."
"That's the toughest coverage as a receiver to get open against," Patten said, "because the DB doesn't have to worry about the deep ball, and nine times out of 10 the quarterback isn't going to be inclined to throw the ball deep because you've got two safeties, so they could be more aggressive."
So to counter, New England often lined up Givens and Patten on the same side ("twins") with little room between them, in a "bunch" formation. New England wanted the Dolphin defenders, fearing they could get picked by the Patriots' crossing routes, to play softer and to play more zone, thereby creating more room for the short-passing game.
The Patriots didn't pick the Dolphins apart, but they picked up the passing yards they needed when they had to. Two of Givens' catches converted third downs, three were for first downs, and the other was a 5-yard touchdown catch that gave New England a 17-7 lead going into halftime. Two years ago the Patriots took Givens in the seventh round. He's scheduled to be a restricted free agent after this season, and there figure to be several teams lined up and looking to steal him from the Patriots.
New England's only big play in the passing game was Brady's 28-yard strike to Patten, an unrestricted free agent after the season, over Madison late in the first quarter. It was Patten's only catch of the day, but it helped set up Adam Vinatieri's 40-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
And with that, the Patriots had the Dolphins where they wanted them: behind. That allowed them to lean on the running game, the defense, and the special teams.
"This was a situational game," said left tackle Matt Light, who, with the help of tight ends Daniel Graham (one catch, one yard, one TD) and Christian Fauria, contained Jason Taylor. "Had we gotten down early, we would have had to take it to the air and change our approach. It would have been a completely different ballgame."
Instead it ended, as usual, with the Patriots victorious.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com
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