MIAMI -- Did the dish run away with the spoon?
|Miami's surprise season turns rookie head coach Tony Sparano into a sudden star. (Getty Images)|
The turnaround for the Dolphins, though -- four consecutive wins and counting -- isn't just the luck of the Ireland, or the Bill-Parcells-Mini-Me approach of Sparano. Both men have established themselves as tough and smart, winning the confidence of the players and the fans -- and both are about to be introduced on the national stage.
The unlikely scenario of the Dolphins and Patriots being tied for second in the AFC East in mid-November came about because of a fourth-and-5 on the Raiders 35 with two minutes left in Miami's game against Oakland.
Trailing 15-14, Sparano had to decide between a 53-yard field-goal attempt by rookie Dan Carpenter or giving Chad Pennington the ball. Sparano said his quarterback came to the sideline and said to him, "We can do this."
It was pure Pennington, the comeback kid in more ways than one. The ball was snapped; Pennington looked to Greg Camarillo, then Ronnie Brown, then Ted Ginn, his third option on the crucial play. Ginn ran a shallow cross, gained 7 yards, and three plays later, Carpenter kicked a 38-yard field goal to win it 17-15.
"It is deeply satisfying," said Pennington, sitting at his locker, looking exhausted and somewhat relieved. "It's not just about the play, it's about the hours of practice and study and film. It's the reward of coming together, of learning how to win. And there is nothing, nothing, better than his feeling."
Sparano said it's like having a coach on the field and that Pennington spends so much time in meetings with his receivers and studying film that Sparano has to tell the veteran, "Go get some rest."
The biggest difference between the 2007 Dolphins and the '08 Dolphins -- apart from Parcells and his disciples -- is the quarterback who dropped from heaven when Brett Favre signed with the Jets. Pennington is intelligent, steady, calm in the pocket and has a sense of humor.
When I told him that expectations from fans were absurdly high now and that one amnesiac called a radio show to declare that, for this season, "8-8 is unacceptable," Pennington burst out laughing.
"I hope the host hung up," he said.
The Dolphins have been Patriot spoilers recently, with late season wins in 2004 and 2006. But the ramifications of this game are enormous. New England is hurting -- no Brady, no Rodney Harrison, no Adalius Thomas. At 6-4, their division record is 2-2, their conference record 4-4. The Dolphins, also at 6-4, are 2-1 and 5-3. If the playoffs started today, both would be on the outside with their faces pressed against the window, but Miami holds the edge, which would get much bigger with another victory over New England.
"No one gives you those championship hats and T-shirts," said Patriot linebacker Teddy Bruschi. "We know we have to earn them."
The Patriots might need a roadmap to find the playoffs. Not since 2002 has New England had to fight for a spot. Matt Cassel has evolved, and the game will be a huge test for the Dolphins secondary. But for Miami, Ted Ginn has emerged, and the defense is on a roll. Only Miami's special teams are up for an overhaul. The game will highlight Patrick Cobbs and Ellis Hobbs.
And there are other delicious aspects. Will Parcells look down from his skybox and know everything Bill Belichick is doing? Will the Patriots lose two in a row, dropping them further back in the wild-card race? For both teams, with six games left, Sunday is the moment.
"I can't wait to see a sold out Dolphins Stadium exploding for us," said Joey Porter, who'll focus his motor on Cassel. "And we need every single fan."
The last Patriots–Dolphins game, in Week 3, was a Wildcat affair. Introducing the creative offense to the nation, Miami direct snapped to Ronnie Brown six times, resulting in 119 yards and three touchdowns. Brown finished with four rushing TDs and passed for another as the Dolphins won 38-13. Belichick isn't likely to get fooled again.
But Brown wants to stay one step ahead of the Hoody.
"Maybe this time," he said, "we'll confuse them with our normal offense."