FOXBORO, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' defenders dance a lot with the Miami Dolphins. Twice every regular season. Once just six days ago. So yesterday, whenever Dan Marino or his receivers stepped left, they followed. Whenever Dolphins dipped or spun, there were the Patriots, cheek-to-cheek.
The Patriots, Johnson said, knew all the audibles Marino called to try to counter their constant blitz.
"That's just Jimmy Johnson blowing a lot of smoke," said Keith Byars, the Patriots back and one-time Dolphin. "How are we going to know everything they're doing? We're not Carnacs. They did huddle sometimes, didn't they?"
Yes, but the benefits weren't always apparent.
Faced with a constantly changing assortment of blitzes, a harried and hurried Marino was sacked four times, completed only 17 of 43 passes for a personal-playoff-worst total of 141 yards and was intercepted twice, one of them returned for a third-quarter touchdown by Todd Collins.
New England (11-6), which beat the Dolphins (9-8) three times this season, moves into the second round of the playoffs for a second straight year. The Patriots will meet Pittsburgh, the only team to beat them in the last six weeks, Saturday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium.
"This is the way we know how to win," said Pete Carroll, the boyish and bland New England coach who is finally moving out of Bill Parcells' sizable shadow. "Playing defense, hawking the ball on the other side, protecting the ball."
The Patriots, limited offensively by the absence of running back Curtis Martin and receiver Terry Glenn's nagging Achilles' tendon injury, did just enough. They never turned it over, and Derrick Cullors picked up 86 yards on 22 carries in a creditable impersonation of Martin.
The offense's only touchdown came on a 24-yard pass from Drew Bledsoe (16 for 32, 139 yards) to Troy Brown with 10: 27 left in the first half. But even that was set up by the defense, coming three plays after Chris Slade had intercepted a Marino pass and returned it 22 yards to the Miami 29.
"We know the offense has been struggling a little lately, but they're doing what they have to do to win," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "The way our defense is playing right now, all we need is one touchdown."
The Pats blitzed Marino relentlessly, as they had on Monday night, when they beat the Dolphins in Miami to win the AFC East title in the final regular-season game.
Johnson knew what was coming. He even started Bernie Parmalee instead of Miami's leading rusher, Karim Abdul-Jabbar. felt Parmalee, a better blocker, would pick up the blitzes better.
But Parmalee managed just 22 yards on nine carries, and Miami's rushing total (42 yards on 17 carries) was more than 40 yards below its already anemic average.
"When you go on the road, you have to be consistent offensively, and we're just not at that level now," Marino said. "You can't make mistakes, and I made two with the interceptions. We're just not good enough to overcome that right now."
Whether or not New England's defense got help on the audibles from Byars or someone else, their strategy was hardly innovative. The Dolphins still have Marino and no ground game. Add that up and it equals blitzes, lots of blitzes.
"When you can't run the football, you don't have a football team," Johnson said.
The play that broke Miami's back seemed to validate Johnson's claim.
On the Dolphins' second play of the second half, a second-and-five from their own 38, Marino audibled at the line of scrimmage. Immediately, linebacker Collins dropped into pass coverage.
"It sounded like a pass was coming," Collins said.
Marino threw toward Lamar Thomas, who was slanting over the middle. He never saw Collins, who stepped in front of Thomas and ran 40 yards, untouched, for the touchdown that put New England in front 14-0.
With 1: 58 remaining in the period, Adam Vinatieri's 22-yard field made it 17-0. Miami's only points came on Olindo Mare's 38-yarder early in the final period.
The Dolphins did recover an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. But Slade, who had a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery and who also knocked down a pass, recovered a Marino fumble two plays later, and what little drama the day produced dissipated.
It's hard to recall now that the Patriots were 6-5 a little more than a month ago. The weight of Parcells' success here was bending Carroll the way the evergreen branches in surrounding woods sagged yesterday with the remnants of Saturday night's snow.
"It hasn't been easy," Carroll said. "We've had a lot of hard times and a lot of people questioning us about what we're capable of doing. But we're not here for any vindication or anything like that. We're just looking to win the next game."
New England at Pittsburgh (-6), 12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Minn. at San Fran. (-13),
4 p.m., chs. 45, 5
Sunday 6Tampa Bay at Green Bay (-13), 12: 30 p.m., chs. 45, 5
Denver at K.C. (-1 1/2 ),
4 p.m., chs. 11, 4
At San Diego, 6 p.m.
;/ Marino expected to be back with Dolphins.6c
Mitchell's injury another scary moment for Lions. 7c
Picking off Marino
The Patriots had success defending Miami quarterback Dan Marino while beating the Dolphins three times this season. How Marino fared in the three games:
11/23: (at) N.E. 27, Miami 24
38-60, 389 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs
2 sacks, 2 INTs ret. for TDs
12/22: N.E. 14, (at) Miami 12
28-44, 278 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
12/28: (at) N.E 17, Miami 3
17-43, 141 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
4 sacks, 1 fumble, 1 INT ret. for TD
Once more, with feeling
Buccaneers vs. Packers
First meeting: Green Bay, Oct. 5.
Outcome: Packers, 21-16.
Skinny: Brett Favre hit Antonio Freeman (Poly) on a pair of scoring plays and defensive end Gabe Wilkins returned an interception 77 yards for a touchdown in a 21-point third quarter as the Buccaneers lost for the first time. Tampa Bay's Warrick Dunn rushed for 125 yards on 16 carries, and a 2-yard touchdown.
Second meeting: Tampa, Dec. 7.
Outcome: Packers, 17-6.
Skinny: Brett Favre threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns as the Packers clinched the NFC Central Division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Favre, who became the first player in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes in four consecutive seasons, had a 43-yard touchdown pass to Robert Brooks and an 8-yarder to running back Dorsey Levens.
First meeting: San Fran., Dec. 7.
Outcome: 49ers, 28-17.
Skinny: Steve Young passed for 280 yards with two touchdowns and ran for a third as the 49ers handed the Vikings their fourth straight loss, and beat Minnesota for the fourth time in five meetings. Minnesota played its first game without quarterback Brad Johnson, who was sidelined with a herniated cervical disk in his neck. Backup Randall Cunningham was 16-for-30 for 178 yards in his first start since the 1995 season with the Eagles.
Patriots vs. Steelers
First meeting: Foxboro, Dec. 13.
Outcome: Steelers, 24-21, OT.
Skinny: Pittsburgh trailed 14-0 in the second quarter and 21-13 late in the fourth when Kevin Henry intercepted Drew Bledsoe, and returned the ball to the New England 18. On fourth-and-seven, Kordell Stewart threw along the right sideline for Yancey Thigpen, who made a diving grab at the 4 with a minute to go. Two plays later, Stewart tossed a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mark Bruener, cutting the deficit to 21-19 with 38 seconds remaining, and hit Thigpen for a two-point conversion. Pittsburgh won the eventual overtime toss and drove for the game-winning score on Johnson's third field goal of the game, a 31-yarder.
First meeting: Denver, Aug. 31.
Outcome: Broncos, 19-3.
Skinny: Jason Elam kicked four field goals, including a 53-yarder, and Terrell Davis ran for the only touchdown of the game.
Second meeting: K.C., Nov. 16
Outcome: Chiefs, 24-22.
Skinny: Pete Stoyanovich's 54-yard field goal as time expired spoiled another fourth-quarter comeback by John Elway. Elway appeared to craft his 36th career fourth-quarter comeback, moving Denver 59 yards in 6 plays to set up Elam's 34-yard field goal with one minute left. But Kansas City's Rich Gannon answered with a six-play, 39-yard drive.
Pub Date: 12/29/97