Patriots clinch AFC East by grinding out win against Dolphins
Posted: Sunday December 7, 2003 9:30PM; Updated: Sunday December 7, 2003 9:31PM
FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) -- The New England Patriots shrugged off the snow, then watched their hardy fans fling it in celebration of the team's AFC East title.
"You couldn't miss that. That was pretty cool," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Hopefully, there's more excitement down the road."
The Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins 12-0 Sunday, but didn't take control until Tedy Bruschi returned an interception 5 yards for a touchdown that made it 10-0 with 8:55 left. It was the fourth TD of his career.
"It seems like every time he catches it he ends up in the end zone," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "I should put him on offense."
Bruschi ran into the end zone and dropped to his knees as teammates swarmed around him. Then, many of the 45,738 fans who braved the cold clutched fistfuls of powdery snow and flung them into the wind, giving the stadium a festive and frosty air.
The Patriots (11-2) won their ninth consecutive game and tied Kansas City for the NFL's best record. Two of those wins were against division rival Miami (8-5), which would give them an edge in a tiebreaker.
A Nor'easter had dumped at least 28 inches of snow on the Foxboro area from late Friday night until it ended midway through the second quarter. The field had been protected, and there was only a light coating of snow for most of the game. But it was soft and muddy.
"It didn't matter," Miami defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "Snow, mud, blood, who cares. It doesn't affect blocking and tackling. They just did it better."
The shutout was New England's second in four weeks, both 12-0, and the first sustained by Miami in 32 games.
With Ricky Williams leading their running game, the Dolphins were expected to benefit more from the sloppy field. Instead, they struggled to move the ball all game, getting outgained 228 yards to 134. Williams finished with 68 yards on 25 carries.
The Patriots won their fourth straight home game without allowing a defensive touchdown, outscoring those opponents 53-9.
"The wind was pretty heavy early in the game, but it died down," Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler said. "They have a good defense, one of the best in the league."
The last Patriots home game played in snow was their controversial 16-13 second-round playoff win over Oakland on Jan. 19, 2002. Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal through heavy snow forced overtime and he won it with a 23-yard field goal as New England moved closer to its only Super Bowl championship.
The game began in a temperature of 28 degrees with the wind from 20 to 25 mph. It was a sellout, but there were 23,058 no-shows.
The Patriots took a 3-0 lead on Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal late in the first quarter. Then Bruschi intercepted Fiedler's pass.
"I just put my hands up and, fortunately, I got a good bounce," Bruschi said after his second interception return for a touchdown this season.
New England finished the scoring with a safety when Jarvis Green sacked Fiedler in the end zone with 1:13 to go.
"It's obvious the division title is over," Miami coach Dave Wannstedt said. "but our ultimate goal [the playoffs] is still attainable."
Matt Turk punted on 10 of the Dolphins' first 11 possessions and they lost a fumble on the other. And the Patriots won without an offensive touchdown.
Large sections of the seats remained covered with snow through the game. Other fans chose to sit on the snow rather than bother trying to move it.
The closest the Dolphins came to scoring was late in the third quarter when they moved from their 37-yard line to a third-and-3 at the Patriots 10. Then a blitzing Rodney Harrison jarred the ball loose from Fiedler and Mike Vrabel recovered for New England at the 30.
Notes: The Patriots have won 24 straight games when leading after the third quarter. ... The Dolphins fell to 5-2 on the road. They're 3-3 at home. ... Turk's 11 punts set a Miami record for one game. Three other Dolphins had 10, the last being Klaus Wilmsmeyer in 1998. ... Brooks Barnard, signed by the Patriots last Tuesday to replace ineffective punter Ken Walter, had 10 punts and Brady had one on a quick kick. That tied the club record of 11 punts in a game.