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A Wild Ride For The Wild Cards
Paul Zimmerman
January 20, 1986
The Patriots routed the Dolphins 31-14 to win the AFC title and end 19 years of failure in Miami
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January 20, 1986

A Wild Ride For The Wild Cards

The Patriots routed the Dolphins 31-14 to win the AFC title and end 19 years of failure in Miami

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Scorned by tradition, despised by the bettors, the New England Patriots have muscled their way into the Super Bowl on the strength of 16 turnovers, a nasty defense and an offense out of the 1920s. They beat the Miami Dolphins 31-14 in the AFC Championship in the Orange Bowl on Sunday the same way they beat the Jets and the Raiders in the playoffs—by converting turnovers into points (24 of them), by running a lot (59 times) and by throwing a little (12 passes). They ganged up on quarterback Dan Marino's wideouts and turned Miami's passing game into a struggle for survival. Their line knocked the Dolphins off the ball, and two sets of running backs pounded them groggy. NFL Films will not honor the artistry of their offense with one of its slow, dreamy, musical soundtracks, and coach Ray Berry will not be hailed for the brilliance of his game plan. But, hey, they're in the Super Bowl, and the pages of history are loaded with reasons why they shouldn't be.

This is the team that couldn't win a playoff game, remember? Now it has won three. No club had ever gone through a three-game postseason series on the road to reach the Super Bowl. Now the Patriots have done it. They were betting underdogs in all three games. "We ran a lot of bookies out of business," halfback Robert Weathers said. Not bookies, Robert, bettors, the great betting public, the nonbelievers.

What was there to believe? Flukes had gotten the Pats into the championship game, right? They had scored a TD on a kickoff return by the other team in two straight playoff games. Make it three out of their last four games, counting the Monday night loss to Miami in week 15 of the regular season. When has that ever happened? The Orange Bowl was their personal house of horrors; they had lost 18 consecutive times to the Dolphins in that arena. The sun would come out and blister them; it would turn their legs to jelly. Defensive backs would wilt in the heat as they tried to chase those little Dolphin receivers all over the field. It had happened to Cleveland the week before. Why should the Patriots escape?

On Sunday morning destiny smiled on New England for the first time. The weather came up cool. By kickoff the temperature was only 64°. Rain clouds blotted out the sun. Then, at the end of the first half, a slow, persistent drizzle started.

A few Patriots said the weather was no factor. Hot or cold, rain or sun, it made no difference. This was their day. But the linemen, the big people, studied the sky and gave a small prayer of thanks. "Rain helped us more," left guard John Hannah said. "We're a power-type line. We like to push on 'em."

"Let's face it," added center Pete Brock. "Cool weather is just great for fat kids who require IV fluids."

Throughout the playoffs the Patriots have come on in the second half because they were the ones with the fresh legs. Berry has kept to a simple strategy: Run the ball, play for breaks, get a lead and sit on it, and sit and sit, throw only when you have to and avoid mistakes. The Big Eight approach to the NFL.

When New England was the Peyton Place of the NFL, you would have heard grumbles. How can you play Stone Age football in the 1980s? How can you take the quarterback out of the offense? But the older vets on the Patriots, the guys with the long memories, know that Berry has given them something that will make this approach, actually any approach, work. He has given them their legs. They had a short practice week going into the Saturday wild-card playoff against the Jets, and he gave them an extra day off. He gave them three days off from practice—Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—before the Dolphins game, and the workouts they had in Miami on the soggy, rain-soaked turf of Tropical Park Racetrack were three-quarter-speed affairs.

"Whatever we had to accomplish in practice," Berry said, "wasn't as important as having rested legs for the game. I've been giving them extra rest all season. I want fresh athletes. One of the worst things you can do is overwork a thoroughbred."

It's a philosophy born from 13 years as an NFL player, an approach more basic, and probably more sensible, than a whole blackboard full of fancy X's and O's. It could be the reason that the New England special team players constantly swarm the ball and knock it loose, that three Patriots are around every fumble and that guys are always hustling across the field to make that extra hit, to force that extra turnover. Privately, the Patriot players might smile at Berry's basic approach to NFL offense—Tony Eason threw only 16 passes against the Jets, 14 against the Raiders and those 12 on Sunday. That's 42 in three games, or six fewer than Marino threw last week. But the Pats also know that in Berry they have a valuable commodity, a coach who won't wear them out before the kickoff.

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