It's going to come down to the Dec. 28 Monday night game in Miami. Seems that the fate of the New England Patriots always depends on some kind of shoot-out in Miami at the end of the season. Two years ago they had to win there in the AFC Championship Game to get to the Super Bowl. In 1986 they had to defeat the Dolphins in the season's last Monday-nighter to make the playoffs. They put together two long fourth-quarter drives to pull out that one.
New England had thrown the ball well, but on that last scoring march, which covered 86 yards, the Pats kept to the ground, of all places, to stay alive. You may recall that they ranked last in the league in rushing in '86. They did it on memory in Miami against one of the NFL's softer rushing defenses, but hey, they did it. Under coach Ray Berry. New England has become a team that knows how to win, and in the process, it has transformed its image.
On paper the Patriots have one major problem—the offensive line, which last year couldn't figure out how to get along without John Hannah. New England has spent two of its three most recent first-round draft picks on linemen. No. 1 in '85, center Trevor Matich was being groomed to replace 33-year-old Pete Brock, but he broke his foot in camp. This year's top pick, tackle Bruce Armstrong, has had shoulder problems. Left tackle Brian Holloway had off-season shoulder and knee surgery. The Pats did trade for Tampa Bay's Sean Farrell to fill a guard spot, but he was moved to tackle through necessity.
New England backs averaged only 2.9 yards per carry last-fall. Sacks allowed rose from 39 to 47, and quarterback Tony Eason was knocked out of action twice. The offense was saved by wideout Stanley Morgan, who made his 10th NFL season his best.
The Patriots had plenty of problems, but they won the division anyway, and I think they will again. Why? The AFC East is fairly soft. The Jets are all banged up, and Miami is still unproved defensively, a department in which New England has been competent for several years. The Pats will be even better if end Kenneth Sims makes a successful recovery from back surgery and if Toby Williams develops into the quick-striking noseguard they hope he will be.
Nineteen eighty-six was a tough year for immortals. None of three coaches ticketed for the Hall of Fame—Tom Landry of Dallas, Chuck Noll of Pittsburgh and Don Shula of Miami—had winning records. Neither did the Raiders' Tom Flores, whose club keeps putting out those "winningest" press releases. What it all means is that monumental stature as a head coach or as a successful organization does not guarantee a place at the top every year. The game is too fast, its changes come too quickly. Weaknesses can't be covered the way they used to be.
The Miami Dolphins' weaknesses are obvious, and not even owner Joe Robbie's new stadium will hide them. Miami can't run the ball (25th in the league last year), and it can't play defense (tied for 26th). These are pretty basic flaws for any team with aspirations, but because the Dolphins' strengths are so dazzling, they wound up 8-8 last season instead of 4-12.
Dan Marino is the highest-rated quarterback of all time (95.2). Dwight Stephenson is one of the two or three greatest centers in history. Both are in their prime. So are the twin Marks, Duper and Clayton, at the wideouts. So is line coach John Sandusky. Give the guy credit. He inherited a unit loaded with problems, and Miami wound up allowing the fewest sacks (17) in the NFL last season.
The defensive coordinator, Chuck Studley, has been demoted to linebacker coach, and to replace him Shula brought in Tom Olivadotti from Cleveland, a cerebral type in the Bill Arnsparger mold. But the basic worry on defense is in the muscle area—the middle. John Offerdahl, the inside linebacker on the weak side, had a brilliant rookie season in '86, but he looked small and battered at the Pro Bowl. In the first exhibition game he went down for 10 weeks with a torn bicep. The Dolphins are also in trouble at noseguard. Bob Baumhower, whose body is worn down from too many years of playing the position without relief, was a camp holdout. Mike Charles collapsed from fatigue the first day of practice and was cut. Brian Sochia, who was picked up from Houston last year, looked great early in the preseason. "Then Stephenson reported," Shula says. The top two draft picks, defensive end John Bosa (another holdout) and linebacker Rick Graf, will provide outside help. Rookie halfback Troy Stradford, a dazzling little runner, provides flash, not crash.
Something is strange and unsettling about the New York Jets these days. Last December, with a 10-1 start fading into oblivion and the Steelers in town, panic set in, and the wounded were rushed back into action. Noseguard Joe Klecko was sent in one-legged. The idea was to test the stability of his left knee. It wasn't stable. He's due back in November. Right tackle Reggie McElroy tested his right knee. It flunked. October is his projected return date. Defensive end Marty Lyons gave both shoulders the test. The team says he'll be back "sometime in the fall." Maybe.