By Art Martone
Thirty-six touchdowns. Only four interceptions. Unanimous selection as the MVP of the National Football League. After accomplishing all that in 2010, what, you may have said to yourself, could Tom Brady do for an encore?
Game summary: Statistics, scoring and more
Funny you should ask.
Brady opened the 2011 season Monday night with
a) the 11th 500-yard passing game in NFL history,
b) a Patriots franchise record 517 yards passing (which was also good for fifth all-time in the NFL), and
c) the 12th 99-yard touchdown pass in NFL history.
"That's some video-game crap," marveled one of the newest Patriots, Chad Ochocinco.
It was enough to carry the Patriots to a 38-24 victory over the Dolphins, their eighth straight season-opening victory. They haven't lost the first game of a season since their 31-0 drubbing in the Lawyer Milloy Bowl in 2003.
Brady, who completed 32 passes in 48 attempts, and the Patriot offense rolled up 622 total yards.
"I've played with some good quarterbacks," said veteran offensive guard Brian Waters, playing in his first game for the Patriots, "but never a great one."
The Pats needed all those yards, since Chad Henne passed for 416 yards and the Dolphins, at 488, nearly had 500 offensive yards of their own. Together, Brady and Henne passed for an NFL record 933 yards.
But the Pat defense wasn't as bad as the numbers would indicate. The momentum of the game shifted after they held the Dolphins to a field goal when Miami, trailing only 21-14, had a first-and-goal at the New England 1. And later, when it was 31-17, the Pats stopped the Dolphins completely with another goal-line stand; Brady then put the game away with his 99-yard TD pass to Welker.
The heat and humidity of south Florida was supposed to work in Miami's favor, but the Pats and their no-huddle offense wore down the Dolphin defenders. Unable to sub out with Brady getting his team to the line of scrimmage within seconds of the end of the previous play, they were cramping and exhausted, and the Pats scored 24 second-half points in breaking open a close game.
The Dolphins had tied the game early in the third quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Chad Henne to Brian Hartline, set up by a 51-yard interception return by defensive lineman Jared Odrick. Benny Sapp's deflection of a Brady pass had caromed back to Odrick, who rumbled down to the 9-yard line.
But the Pats answered immediately, going 73 yards in 10 plays and retaking the lead, 21-14, on a two-yard pass from Brady to Welker.
The defense stepped up for the first time immediately afterwards, after Miami moved from its 11 to the Pats 1. The Pats, led by Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork, stuffed Lex Hilliard for a one-yard loss on first-and-goal, and Henne then missed two straight passes to Brandon Marshall -- Devin McCourty nearly intercepted the first -- forcing the Dolphins to settle for a 20-yard Dan Carpenter field goal, which made the score 21-17.
Brady resumed firing on the next series, taking the Pats from their 22 to the Dolphins 1 in eight plays, including a 24-yard pass to Deion Branch and a 30-yarder to Aaron Hernandez, which put the ball at the 1. He found Hernandez in the back corner of the end zone for the score, giving them a 28-17 lead.
A Stephen Gostkowski field goal upped the advantage to 31-17, and the Pats then put together their second goal-line stand, stopping the Dolphins at the 1.
And on the very next play, Brady and Welker tied the NFL record for the longest play from scrimmage, a 99-yard touchdown pass that increased New England's lead to 38-17.
Reggie Bush closed out the scoring for Miami with a two-yard TD run.
Badly timed penalties hampered the Patriots' offense twice in the first half, which is why - despite 13 first downs and 263 total yards (not to mention executing eight plays of 10 or more yards) in the first two quarters -- New England only held a slim 14-7 lead.
The first mishap was a false start penalty on Branch, after the Pats, looking to build on that 14-7 advantage, had moved from their own 16 to the Miami 42 in eight plays. The penalty, while innocuous enough, seemed to short-circuit the drive, as Brady missed on his next two passes and could only pick up seven yards to Branch on a third-and-15, forcing a punt.
The second was far more costly, as it prevented the Pats from completing a 90-yard drive in the final two minutes.
Brady was magnificent as he moved the Patriots from their own 10 to the Dolphins 19 after the two-minute warning. On three consecutive plays, he completed passes of 14 yards to Chad Ochocinco (Ocho's first reception as a Patriot), 23 yards to Rob Gronkowski and 22 yards to Gronkowski, giving the Pats a first-and-10 on the Miami 19. But a holding penalty on rookie Nate Solder -- who, to that point, had done a superb job on Cameron Wake as Sebastian Vollmer's fill-in at right tackle -- negated an 18-yard pass to Welker that put the ball on the 1. Pushed back to the 29, Wake then sacked Brady for a yard loss with seven seconds to play, forcing Gostkowski to attempt a 48-yard field goal. He missed badly to the right, and the Pats came away with nothing.
Prior to that, the Pats' attack was humming along as smoothly as it did in 2010. After Miami had opened the scoring on a nine-yard scramble by Henne, completing a 12-play, 84-yard drive after the kickoff, New England struck back with a six-play, 78-yard drive of its own. Matthew Slater's first NFL reception, a 46-yard pass from Brady, set up the Pats on the Miami 24, and a 14-yard Brady-to-Gronkowski completion moved it to the 4. BenJarvus Green-Ellis brought it in from there, making the score 7-7.
On their next possession, the Patriots needed only 2 minutes and 54 seconds to cover 65 yards in 7 plays for a 14-7 lead. Brady completed passes of 14 yards to Branch, 16 yards to Hernandez and 21 yards to Welker before hooking up with Gronkowski for a 10-yard touchdown.
Art Martone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.