by Scott Benson

It wasn’t pretty, but the Patriots will take it.

Today’s 20-10 win over Miami offered none of the dominance of last week’s thrashing of the Bengals – in fact quite the opposite at times – but the New England Patriots still headed off the threadbare Gillette Stadium field and into their bye week with an 4-1 record featuring three early division wins.

Much like they had against both the Bills and the Jets, the Patriots struggled at times with an allegedly weaker AFC East opponent. Despite being unable to get off the field throughout much of the afternoon, the Patriots defense keyed this win with three timely takeaways and two special teams stops that led directly to all of New England’s 20 points.

Damn good thing, too. Tom Brady and the Patriots offense could manage but 213 total yards (with a long drive of 56), thanks to a Miami defensive effort that took away Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney (83 combined yards and 2.9 yards a carry) while harrassing Brady and blanketing his receivers. Once again, the Dolphins had Brady on the run. Seasons change, the players change and the coaches change, but Miami still plagues the two-time Super Bowl MVP. Same shit, different day. It’s getting kind of tiresome, isn’t it? Are the Patriots ever going to come up with an answer to it?

Thankfully, the sputtering offense WAS able to close the deal when presented with sweet field position by the suddenly playmaking New England defense (five takeways in the last two weeks). Brady threw short touchdowns to Troy Brown and Heath Evans, both following interceptions by Asante Samuel.

The Dolphins surprised by starting Detroit reject Joey Harrington in place of the battered Daunte Culpepper, and the change proved to be a well advised one for Miami.

Harrington repeatedly hit underneath receivers while Patriots defenders provided ample cushion to do so. It was as if the Patriots had prepared their defense for the long range throws of Culpepper, because their defensive backs played well off Miami’s receivers, as if protecting against a quick strike. This left great swaths of nearby turf for Harrington to play pitch and catch with the likes of Wes Welker and Randy McMichael, who rarely were bothered by a nearby New England defender. Harrington probably completed more passes in this game than he had in his entire five-year career. And with no running game to boot.

It didn’t amount to as much as it could have, thanks to the Pats run stuffing, turnovers, and big special teams plays.

Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau combined to force a Ronnie Brown fumble on the Dolphins first possession, which led to a Stephen Gostkowski field goal (two in a row…) and an early 3-0 lead. But on the next Miami drive, Harrington went to work, using the short pass to drive the Dolphins to the Patriots 22 (converting two third downs in the process). But Olindo Mare’s plant foot slipped on the tying field goal try, and Mike Wright slipped through to block the low kick and preserve the slim lead. It was the first time Mare had a kick blocked since Richard Seymour did it in 2003.

Brady then led the Pats on their longest drive of the day, hitting Troy Brown and Reche Caldwell with big third down throws on their way inside the Miami 20. But the Patriots could go no further, and Gostkowski added another field goal (THREE in a row….) to bring the lead to six.

Samuel smartly stepped in front of Welker to grab a Harrington throw on the third play of the next Miami possession, returning the ball to the Dolphins 10 and setting up Brown’s touchdown, a nice catch of a deliberately low Brady throw. Brown did not seem to be the primary receiver on the play, but the wily veteran worked his way free in time for Brady to thread him a throw.

So the Pats had Miami down early, and the thought was that New England may roll again, just a week after their 25 point win in Cincinnati.

But Miami quickly went to a no-hiuddle offense, putting Harrington back in the shotgun, where he took advantage of the generous personal space that Patriots defenders were allowing his receivers. An 80 yard, five minute drive resulted (built on a 23 yarder to a wide open McMichael, and a 25 yard beauty to a well-covered Welker), and Ronnie Brown plunged in to make it 13-7.

Besides fumbling, and dropping a late pass that would have been a first down, it was the only thing that the second-year back from Auburn did all day. The Pats were on him like white on rice from the start, and he finished with only 39 yards and a 2.2 yards per carry average.

Which makes Harrington’s performance all the better. Even without a suitable running threat, he calmly stood in the pocket without fear of reprisal (none was coming anyway – the Pats had only one sack all day). After the Pats were stopped on their (lethargic) final first half possession, Harrington brought the Phins back upfield to set up another Mare field goal try, and this time the veteran put it through. The Dolphins had responded to the early Patriots lead with 10 unanswered points. In doing so, they dominated time of possession and total yard stats for the first 30 minutes.

Mike Wright opened the second half with another strong special teams play, bursting into the backfield to tackle Miami punter Donnie Jones after he had fumbled the snap from center. The undrafted free agent from Cincinnati continues to cement his role on the team in just his second year in the league.

But Brady and the Patriots offense, which had been deathly quiet since early in the second quarter, could do nothing with the mid-field position. Brady missed a wide open Caldwell for a sure gain, and had a pass batted down at the line. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Patriots kept removing Corey Dillon from the game in favor of Maroney, even though the Bully Brother was one of the few who was able to get anything going against the Dolphins (4.5 a carry). I understand that the season is a marathon and not a sprint, and the split carries will keep them both fresh, but the rookie was running in cement all day, while Dillon was able to punch through here and there. Nevertheless, Maroney nearly doubled the veteran’s touches.

Happily, the Patriots defense picked this point to ratchet up the pass rush on Harrington, and the Dolphins offense began to sputter. They could do nothing with their next two possessions, and not even ANOTHER BALL-CRUSHING FUMBLE BY KEVIN FLIPPIN’ FAULK (that’s what my notes said) could enliven them again.

I have seen enough to know I’ve seen too much from Mr. Butterfingers, who dropped the ball after yet another kill shot interrupted an otherwise nice 18 yard punt return. He handed a stalled Miami offense a gift-wrapped ball at the Patriots 37, but the New England defense held firm (with a strong pass rush from Rosevelt Colvin and the Pats front seven) and forced another Miami punt. The lead remained at three.

On the next Dolphins possession, Harrington was hurried once again, which caused him to throw behind Welker, who tipped the ball to Samuel for his second interception of the day. The turnover left the ball at the Miami 24, and Brady went for the kill. He tried to go deep right to Doug Gabriel (quiet day with just 2 catches for 7 yards) and drew a pass interference from former Giant Will Allen. The penalty gave the Pats the ball at the two, and Brady rolled to his right for a touchdown flip to Evans, and a 10 point lead.

The Dolphins would take one more run at it in the fourth quarter, driving to the New England 32 (helped by a facemask foul by Jarvis Green on a third down sack), but Mare continued to struggle with the sandy Gillette sod, badly missing a 50 yard field goal to the right.

The Patriots offense finished the day on an up note by taking possession with 5:59 left and holding the ball for the remainder of the game. It was really the high point of their afternoon.

Along with his two picks, Samuel led the Pats with six tackles. Brown was the leading New England receiver with five catches, every one with meaning.

I couldn’t help but notice that Rodney Harrison was delivering a little something extra with his hits today. He looked like his old self again, about a year after his devastating knee injury in Pittsburgh.

The Patriots will now enjoy a well-deserved week off. Affter an off-season of unprecedented media and fan fretting, with the losses of icons like Vinatieri and McGinest, and young stars like Givens and Branch gathering like storm clouds, New England now heads into its bye week with a tidy 4-1 record, and three quick divisional wins. It would be hard to argue that we had a right to expect more.

See, today’s win is already looking prettier.