Another factor that makes this Patriot team different from all those self-destruct New England outfits of the past is defense. New England has never had the kind of dominating and physically punishing defense that it has now, and against Marino and the Dolphins, the Pats showed another dimension—great pass-coverage ability. Shut down the deep stuff to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, clamp down hard on the underneath pass patterns to Tony Nathan and Nat Moore, and you'll reduce Miami to a very ordinary team. The Dolphins' running game is an annoyance, but it won't beat you. Their defense can be had, provided you're not in a desperation situation, trying to match scores with the most feared point machine in the business. But to beat the Dolphins, you have got to get very serious with Don Shula's gang of pass catchers.
"I have good feelings about this game," New England defensive coordinator Rod Rust said on Friday. "We've been playing sound football. Our corner-backs have been covering extremely well. Our right linebacker, Don Blackmon, has been coming on, and I have no fears about putting him in man-to-man coverage. One thing you always know when you take on Shula's Dolphins is that they're going to execute their offense. You've got to be very sound against them because they feast on mistakes."
So do the Patriots, but in a more dramatic way—turnovers. In the playoffs, the Jets turned the ball over four times against them, the Raiders six. Seven of those 10 turnovers resulted in New England scores. Miami did not escape the plague. The Dolphins handed the ball to the Patriots six times, four times in their own territory. Each of those four produced a score.
Nathan fumbled on the Dolphins' 20 on Miami's first play from scrimmage, setting up a 23-yard Tony Franklin field goal. At the end of the first quarter, the Dolphins put together a long, carefully controlled drive. It ended 39 seconds into the second quarter on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Marino to tight end Dan Johnson. New England came back with its second running back set, bringing in Weathers and Mosi Tatupu for Craig James and Tony Collins. The Pats drove 66 yards for the TD that made the score 10-7, the 222-pound Weathers setting it up with a 45-yard gallop around left end in which he broke three tackles.
"The play was designed inside, but it was clogged, so I took it wide," said Weathers. "They were grabbing at the ball, one guy had me around the waist. I just kept running." The payoff came on a four-yard Eason-to-Collins pass. Eason pumped once, waited for Collins to break loose inside and then drilled him. It was a nice read by Eason, who completed 10 of his 12 throws.
On the next Miami series Marino fumbled the snap on the Dolphins' 36. The Patriots took seven plays to get in the end zone again, this time on a one-yard, first-down pass to the second tight end, Derrick Ramsey. It was 17-7, and now Marino tried to work the middle of the field. The Patriot cornerbacks were covering the deep stuff well; they were outside-conscious. Miami reached the New England 16. Johnson dropped a TD pass, another throw went incomplete and then Fuad Reveiz missed a 31-yard field goal. Blackmon said something to him, and the rookie kicker slapped him across the face mask. "I sank to his level," Reveiz said. "I apologized later on."
The game was slipping away from the Dolphins, and things got worse in the third quarter when Lorenzo Hampton lost the opening kickoff on his own 25 after a solid hit by Tatupu. Six plays later, on fourth-and-one from the two, Eason found Weathers in the end zone. The score was 24-7, and New England sat on its lead. Eason would throw just two more passes, a six-yarder to Tatupu and a swing pass that Weathers dropped. Come and get us.
Early in the fourth quarter, New England's Roland James fumbled his second punt. On the next play Marino threw a 10-yard TD pass to Nathan to make the score 24-14. James, the strong safety, was returning punts because of a midweek mishap straight out of the Patriots' past. Irving Fryar, the NFL's leading punt returner, had cut a tendon in a finger on his right hand just before the Pats were scheduled to fly to Miami on Wednesday. Kitchen accident, said the first announcement...a knife was sticking out of a drawer, etc. However, it then came out that Fryar was injured in a scuffle with his pregnant wife of one year, Jacqueline. So on Sunday, Fryar was back in New England, and James was trying to do the best he could.
"In the last Super Bowl we got blown away in the second quarter," Shula said. "When we scored today to get within 10 points, I thought we had a chance. But the Raiders turned it over and we turned it over. You can't win that way."
The fifth Miami turnover, which turned the lights out early in the fourth quarter, came when halfback Joe Carter fumbled on the Dolphin 45. The James-and-Collins backfield had been on the bench for one series, but now it was back, with fresh wheels. "Alternating back-fields like that was great, it really was," said James, who carried 22 times for 105 of the Pats' 255 yards rushing. "When I got back in, I was ready to go."