By Art Martone
There was a statement to be made Monday night at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, and the Patriots made it.
Who could have figured, though, that they'd be making it with people like Patrick Chung and Rob Ninkovich?
Scoring summary and statistics
Chung blocked two kicks -- one punt, one field-goal attempt -- that resulted in two touchdowns, then scored one of his own on a 52-yard interception return. Ninkovich made the first truly big plays turned in by the New England defense all season, and he made them in droves: Two interceptions and a sack, leading to 13 points. Nor should we forget Brandon Tate, who returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown for the second time this season. Or Jarrad Page, who chipped in with an interception. Or folk hero Danny Woodhead, who scored yet another touchdown.
Not the names you'd normally associate with a big Patriots victory. But these are the new Patriots, and they took the first step toward building an identity separate from their dynastic predecessors with an impressive 41-14 Monday night win over Miami that increased their record to 3-1 and keeps them in a first-place tie with the Jets heading into the bye week.
"Really proud of the players," said coach Bill Belichick. "They stepped up on offense and defense, made big plays . . . It was kind of our night."
It didn't start impressively. On the Dolphins' first drive, they moved from their 20 to the New England 36 before the Pats' defense stiffened and forced a punt. But the second drive got off on the right foot -- a 21-yard Chad Henne completion to Davone Bess -- and never faltered. It took them seven plays to go 64 yards, with Henne hitting Bess on a 19-yard pass-and-run down the right sideline in which Bess broke a Chung tackle and eluded James Sanders for the touchdown.
The Patriots were forced to punt on their next drive and, when Henne and Bess combined for a 13-yard completion on a third-and-10 for a first down at the Miami 45, it looked like New England was in for a long night. It was here, however, where Ninkovich made his first big play, an interception of a pass intended for Brandon Marshall that gave the Pats the ball at the New England 40.
Then the Patriots' best defense became their offense.
New England began a long, 16-play drive that culminated in a 23-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, cutting the lead to 7-3 but, just as importantly, wiping more than seven minutes off the clock and keeping the Dolphins offense off the field. Almost all the 16 plays -- 11 of them, to be exact -- were runs, with Tom Brady hitting Aaron Hernandez with a pair of key, 10-yard completions to keep the drive moving. A six-yard Cameron Wake sack of Brady on a first-and-goal from the 9 distrupted the drive, and they only got back to the 5 before calling on Gostkowski.
The Dolphins resumed firing on their next possession, moving from their 21 to the New England 27 and seemed poised to add to their lead. But Ninkovich did it again, picking off a Henne pass in the flat intended for Patrick Cobbs and giving the Pats the ball at their own 25 with 2:47 to play in the half.
Seventy-five yards from the end zone, Brady (19-of-24, 153 yards, 1 TD) cooly moved the Patriots down the field with a drive that started with short passes to Wes Welker and then stretched to longer tosses to Tate. He completed 7 of 9 attempts for 54 yards during the march, and nearly got a touchdown when he just missed hooking up with Randy Moss on a 11-yard pass into the end zone after a fake spike. Gostkowski booted a 30-yard field goal as time expired, making the score 7-6.
Then the Patriots' best defense became their special teams.
For the second time this season, Tate returned a second-half kickoff for a touchdown. This one went for 103 yards, and put the Patriots on top for the first time in the game, 13-7. The Pats' defense followed with its first three-and-out of the game, and Chung blocked a Brandon Fields punt that was recovered by Brandon Spikes at the Dolphins' 16. Two plays later BenJarvus Green-Ellis burst in from 12 yards out, increasing New England's lead to 20-7.
"We practiced everything that happened - all of those blocks, and people doing their job allowed me to make a play," Chung said.
Miami, which ran up 400 yards total offense despite the 27-point loss, cut the lead to 20-14 with an 8-play, 80-yard drive, capped by a 28-yard Henne pass to Ricky Williams with just under nine minutes to play in the third quarter.
This was the point -- road game, shrinking lead -- that the 2009 Pats usually crumbled.
But the 2010 Pats rose to the occasion. And then some.
In this situation in 2009, Brady's decision-making frequently devolved into forcing passes to Randy Moss. He didn't do that Monday -- in fact, Moss didn't catch a pass all night (the first time since 2006 he's been held without a catch in a game) -- and spread the ball around as New England responded with a 12-play, 78-yard drive of its own. It ended when Woodhead raced into the end zone with an 11-yard pass from Brady, making it 27-14.
On the Dolphins' next series, Ninkovich halted the drive with a sack of Henne and Chung punctuated the night with a block of an attempted 53-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter that Kyle Arrington scooped up and raced 35 yards into the end zone.
Two series later, Chung was the grateful recepient of a Henne pass thrown right at him on a busted route by Marshall and waltzed 52 yards to paydirt.
"It shocked me," he said. "I was like, 'He threw it? Thanks.' "
By then it was 41-14, the pregame worries of a leaky New England defense being shredded by the Dolphins -- not to mention all that talk of their being unable to beat a quality opponent on the road -- were all but forgotten, and these new Patriots had sparked the enthusiasm and hope for the rest of the season.
Want to talk enthusiasm? When Devin McCourty made an open-field tackle of Ronnie Brown on a fourth-and-2 that forced Miami to surrender the ball on downs, the normally stoic Belichick raced onto the field, clapping his hands enthusiastically and saluting his young defense.
New Patriots, indeed.
NOTES: The Patriots are the first team in NFL history to score TDs rushing, passing, on a kick return, on a blocked field goal and on an interception return in the same game . . . Brandon Meriweather suffered a knee injury in the first half and didn't return . . . Arrington said the touchdown he scored was his first since high school.