Patriots 23, Dolphins 16
Bill Belichick showed again how resourceful he can be. Not that Nick Saban expected anything less from his mentor.
With no running back, a Saban castoff at fullback and reserves at three other offensive positions, Belichick and the injury-riddled New England Patriots still beat Saban's Miami Dolphins, 23-16, on Sunday.
Tom Brady brought New England from behind twice in the second half, throwing for the game-winning score with 2 minutes 16 seconds left. Gus Frerotte then drove the Dolphins 70 yards to the 5 with a minute remaining, but his fourth-down pass went off Chris Chambers's fingertips in the end zone with 36 seconds left.
"This is one of those great games that went back and forth," Belichick said. "It turned into a track meet at the end. I'm proud of the guys for hanging in there."
The game was the first between Belichick and protege Saban, a friend of 23 years. When the game ended, they shook hands at midfield and had a brief exchange.
Two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England (5-4) remained alone atop the AFC East. The Patriots have won 21 of their last 25 division games.
Miami (3-6) missed a chance to tie for the division lead, instead losing for the fifth time in six games.
"I can't sit here and say that our players aren't as good as their players," Saban said. "I feel terribly that we didn't get the result that we wanted."
Four offensive starters were inactive for the Patriots, and a fifth -- running back Corey Dillon -- was limited to two plays because his leg tightened.
"They're great at making adjustments, and great at getting things fixed," Saban said.
Belichick turned ballcarrying duties over to fullback Heath Evans, signed after Saban released him Oct. 25. Evans carried 17 times for 84 yards, surpassing in one game his total for any of his previous four NFL seasons.
"I remember the first day at practice when we thought, 'Why did somebody release him?' " Brady said. "We thank the Dolphins very much for letting him go."
But it was Brady who bailed out the Patriots. He went 21 for 36 for 275 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to backup tight end Benjamin Watson.
"As usual, Tom played his best football when it counted," Belichick said.
Brady's first scoring pass covered 16 yards and put New England ahead 12-7 on the final play of the third quarter. But Frerotte, who went 25 for 47 for a season-high 360 yards, regained the lead for Miami on a bizarre 15-yard touchdown pass.
With the Dolphins in the shotgun on third and three, Seth McKinney snapped the ball prematurely and it deflected off Frerotte's right leg. He quickly picked it up and threw down the middle to Chambers, wide open in the end zone after slipping behind Ellis Hobbs.
The Dolphins' two-point conversion failed, leaving them ahead 16-15 with 2:59 remaining.
New England needed only two plays to come back. First, Brady threw 59 yards to Tim Dwight, who outwrestled Reggie Howard for the ball. Then, Brady hit Watson with a 17-yard touchdown pass.
Frerotte and the Dolphins weren't finished, and they reached the 5 with 58 seconds left. Saban, the target of much second-guessing when he opted to throw rather than run with a chance to force overtime a week ago, again went with passes.
Frerotte threw incomplete into the end zone on first and second downs, then hit Ronnie Brown in the flat for a five-yard loss. Chambers had a chance to catch Frerotte's final throw, but the ball fell incomplete.
"I got my fingertips on it," said Chambers, who dropped three other passes. "I had a tough time picking up those low balls today."