Dolphins defense picks off Pats
MIAMI -- In this strange NFL season, consistency wins -- and nothing is more consistent than the Miami defense.
That was evident Sunday as the Dolphins beat the New England Patriots 27-17, picking off five Drew Bledsoe passes and sacking him five times to stay in a tie with Indianapolis atop the AFC East at 8-2. The victory also opened up ground on the Patriots (6-4) and Buffalo (7-4), which was upset by the New York Jets on Sunday.
Drew Bledsoe was roughed up all afternoon by Daryl Gardener and the Dolphins defense. Miami gained just 229 yards against New England and didn't have a first down for 17 minutes at the start. Quarterback Damon Huard, who threw two short touchdown passes to Oronde Gadsden, left in the third quarter with a broken nose.
But the defense set up 13 points, stopped two late New England threats and basically dominated.
A 68-yard TD pass from Bledsoe to Shawn Jefferson got the Patriots back in the game late in the third quarter just 29 seconds after Miami had opened a 14-point lead. But Miami defensive end Jason Taylor got his first career interception to set up an Olindo Mare field goal that built Miami's lead back to 27-17 with about three minutes left in the game.
"In this division, you have no margin for error," Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said. "Our defense today, playing at home, came through for us."
It was just in time.
Miami was coming off a loss in Buffalo in which it gained just 101 total yards and lost starting running back Cecil Collins with a broken leg. Rookie running back J.J. Johnson, who had alternated with Collins, had more than last week's total for the entire team -- 106 yards on 31 carries.
Jimmy Johnson lost his temper after that loss in Buffalo, and it seemed to work.
GAME NOTES Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said Dan Marino, who has missed the last five games with a pinched nerve in his neck, will return to practice Monday and split repetitions with Huard. Johnson said he did not expect to decide on a starter until game time on Thursday.
With his 19-yard field goal in the first quarter, Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare tied Garo Yepremian's team record for consecutive regular-season games with a field goal at 20.
Drew Bledsoe's 68-yard pass to Shawn Jefferson in the third quarter was New England's longest of the season.
Bledsoe's five interception's tied his career high. Pittsburgh also picked him off five times in 1993, Bledsoe's rookie season.
"Being a Dolphin wasn't the best job this week," Taylor said. "Coach was upset, and he had a right to be. But he made us focus."
The defeat seriously hurt the Patriots, who lost 31-30 to Miami in Foxboro, Mass., in October. That means they're really three games behind the Dolphins in the division.
"We lost too much ground here," said New England coach Pete Carroll, whose team was beaten for the second time in six days. "We're running out of time."
Huard, replaced by former Patriot Scott Zolak, threw touchdown passes of four and three yards to Gadsden, who also had two important third-down receptions on Miami's first touchdown drive. Huard, who was 18-for-30 for 131 yards, said he could play Thursday in Dallas, but Johnson said he hopes Dan Marino will return from a pinched nerve in his neck.
Miami broke a 10-10 halftime tie by driving 80 yards in 10 plays for the go-ahead score on the second Huard-Gadsden hookup. That never would have happened if Willie McGinest hadn't been called for a late hit on Huard after an incomplete pass on third-and-5 from the Miami 39.
"There's a number of things that could have changed the game around. I'm not going to sit here and say 'Willie, your play changed the game around,' " McGinest said.
"I'm an aggressive guy. I'm going to go after the quarterback any chance I've got. We're at the point now where it's just going to kill us if we lose any more divisional games."
New England jumped out to a 7-0 lead on Terry Allen's 6-yard run two plays after Huard fumbled trying to pitch out, and Chad Eaton recovered at the Miami 7.
Sam Madison's interception set up Mare's field goal that cut it to 7-3 late in the first quarter.
Adam Vinatieri's 27-yarder made it 10-3, then the Dolphins drove 76 yards in 12 plays. Gadsden, who had two key third-down receptions on the drive, made a leaping catch of Huard's 4-yard pass in the end zone to tie it and send the game to halftime at 10-10.
After the 80-yard TD drive that made it 17-10 early in the second half, Terrell Buckley picked off Bledsoe's pass and returned it 18 yards to the New England 10. Three plays later, Johnson went into the end zone.
But on the second play from scrimmage after that, Jefferson got behind Buckley and weaved his way into the end zone.
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