by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist
In what is being called one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, 3-11 Miami’s Monday night win over rival 12-2 New England has the faithful full of holiday cheer.
Talk about timing! Old Saint Nick couldn’t have brought a better gift to the beleaguered Dolphins and Dolfanatics than this terrific triumph.
It’s special because it was over the world champs. It’s sweet because it was over the hated Patriots, who were trying to capture home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Yes Dolfans, you can gloat. They’re the Patsies again, if only for a week.
Of course no one wants to look a gift horse in the mouth. But to fully appreciate the win is to understand how the Dolphins engineered it. The plays themselves only tell part of the story.
So let’s begin with underlying motivation. Football, after all, is a game of raw emotion and can only be properly played in this fashion.
The Dolphins were an angry bunch, with good reason. No other team has dealt the Dolphins more severe post-season blows over the past three years than the Patriots.
Pick your game…be it last season’s overtime heartbreaker or the repeated December failures in Foxborough. All had a profound impact on the Dolphins’ postseason chances.
In the end, the Pats celebrated championships and the Dolphins sat home questioning themselves, dealing with the fallout and the pain of being second-best.
So surely, the very thought of gaining some measure of revenge by sticking it to the Patriots at an inopportune time must have been compelling.
Intelligent gameplanning and some outstanding individual efforts did the rest.
On offense, the Dolphins employed a masterful strategy intended to punish the Patriots for using the blitz.
Without Ty Law, the Pats’ secondary isn’t a very good unit. The Dolphins recognized this and sought to use their strengths at wide receiver and tight end to attack the Patriots with mismatches and quick passes.
The key to making this approach work was Miami’s ability to pick up the disguised blitz and cover schemes that Bill Belichick has become famous for. The Dolphin offensive line had to block them, and quarterback A.J. Feeley had to quickly read and react.
This success was truly the key to the game.
By giving Feeley time to throw, the Dolphins made it very hard for the Patriots to cover up the shortcomings in their secondary.
Recognize that Belichick opened up his playbook for this one, at various points employing a formation with no defensive linemen. Even color commentator John Madden confessed to never having seen such a thing!
While the scheme did fool Feeley at first, he and the coaches quickly adjusted to what the Pats were doing and began to attack it with success.
Even the Dolphin running game began to show some signs of life as the contest wore on, with the Pats preoccupied with covering Dolphin receivers and applying pressure to Feeley.
Defensively, the Dolphins did a terrific job of disguising their coverages, sometimes showing Cover 2 when the real intent was Cover 3. Both Sammy Knight interceptions were a direct result of a confused Brady putting a ball where he wasn’t expecting a Dolphin to be.
A liberal dose of blitzes, many from middle linebacker Derrick Pope, also created problems. The blitzing didn’t allow the Patriots to double up on defenders as much and, in some cases, forced them to keep a tight end or a back in to help protect Brady.
Of course the fantastic play of Jason Taylor just exacerbated the problem.
From there the Dolphin defensive backs took over, forcing Brady into making super accurate throws. With few exceptions, Brady earned everything he got.
While the Dolphin defense has had good success in the past against Brady and the Patriots, it was too much to think that the depleted unit would be able to stop the Pats completely. And, against the run, this proved to be true as the Pats pounded out 166 yards on the ground.
The Dolphins were forced to take this medicine, hoping that they’d have their chances elsewhere. And, they did.
On special teams, the return game was critical to the win. Wes Welker ran hard all night. His 71-yard dash to Patriot 2 yard line in the first quarter was the shot that put everyone on notice that the Dolphins weren’t going to go away.
Had Welker cut back inside, he would have easily scored on the play. You can be sure his teammates will be relentless this week in their needling on this point!
The kicking game was key as well, especially the punting of Matt Turk. His punts had decent hang time and he stuck a couple of iron shots inside the 20 yard line. Turk’s quick release prevented at least one punt from being blocked.
And then there were other truly outstanding individual efforts.
Start with Jason Taylor, who played like a man possessed. He simply would not be denied his one shining moment in a season of broken dreams. The man Brady calls the ‘best player they face all year’ was all that and more.
Quite simply, the Dolphins do not win without Taylor. He was dominant.
Sammy Knight played quite possibly his best game as a Dolphin, considering the circumstances. Not only was he active in creating turnovers, he collected nine tackles and played a pretty clean game.
It was as good and complete an effort as you’ll see a safety give.
Brenden Ayanbadejo started his first game at outside linebacker and did an admirable job. His interception of Brady’s foolish pass with 1:45 to play set the Dolphin offense up for business on the Pats’ 21 yard line. Oh, and he fulfilled his normal duties on special teams as well (2 tackles).
Offensively, the one guy that really stood out was A.J. Feeley. Think of where he was last September and look at him now, making it happen against the world champions in a clutch situation. He rallied the team from 11 points down with just 4 minutes left to win the game, the biggest completion being the game winner to Derrius Thompson from 21 yards out on a fourth down play.
It was a big and important step forward for Feeley.
Also recognize the fine play of right guard Rex Hadnot. Quietly, he is becoming a really nice player whose technique, toughness, and awareness are impressive. Keep in mind that Hadnot is just a rookie.
Finally, hats off to Jim Bates and his coaching staff for drawing up a terrific game plan and for getting the players into position to be successful. Bates had the players believing they could do the job.
Bates may not get the head coaching position but he earned a fair interview with owner Wayne Huizenga and, more importantly, the respect of the players. The Dolphins will be fortunate to have Bates back in 2005 in any capacity.
Can this great win be the spring board the Dolphins need to get their fortunes headed in the right direction?
With renewed confidence and a new head coach on the horizon, the prospects certainly do look encouraging.