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ON FOOTBALL

This team once again better, by far, in a close one

MIAMI -- Two plays. Two inches. Too good.

The essence of what makes pro football the game America loves and coaches hate decided yesterday's gutsy 23-16 Patriots victory over the Miami Dolphins at Dolphins Stadium. Two plays. Two inches. Too good.

That's what the Patriots did and what they were. They were too good by 2 inches, which is the way most things get decided in the NFL these days.

In a game they badly needed to win, the Patriots made two plays that were too close for comfort, Tim Dwight's 59-yard catch-and-run that set up the winning touchdown and Tedy Bruschi's diving fingertip deflection of a Gus Frerotte pass intended for Wes Welker in the end zone at 9:44 of the second quarter that saved a touchdown and led to a missed 31-yard Olindo Mare field goal. In the end, those plays decided who would win and who would lose.

''Those plays are the essence of every game in the NFL," Bruschi said. ''When the opportunity presents itself, it's 'who's going to make the play?' You get it done or the other guy makes it. That's pro football.

''That's why I love playing this game. It's why it's exciting. It's why it feels so good to win. Because it's so difficult. On my play I'm sure Frerotte is thinking, 'If I got the ball there just a little quicker . . . ' "

But he didn't. At least not quickly enough to get the ball past Bruschi, who slapped down what would have been a touchdown by, as Bruschi saw it, ''maybe 2 inches. That's the margin we have."

That's the margin Frerotte didn't have, too. Had he gotten the ball to Welker, the Dolphins would have led, 7-0. Instead they drove 62 yards to emptiness when Mare missed his kick by a lot more than 2 inches. Two inches. Too bad for you, Gus.

''We had a great throw to Wes and Bruschi makes a diving play," Frerotte lamented. ''You know what happened after that. That's the reason they're champs. They play tough. But it's up to us, inevitably, to do the right things. We have to make plays."

The Dolphins made some plays, to be fair. They hit enough passes to pile up 360 yards through the air. They made enough plays to produce 437 total net yards. But they didn't make the big plays, the plays someone had to make to decide the game. The Patriots made them.

Ben Watson made them and Tom Brady made them and Bruschi made them and the silent Dwight made the biggest one of all, winning a wrestling match with dime back Reggie Howard on a Brady throw against a blown coverage with 2:19 remaining in the fourth quarter and New England trailing, 16-15. Dwight's catch-and-run came only seconds after the Dolphins had taken the lead back from the Patriots, so it was a time of high drama. A time when, had Howard won the battle, the Dolphins might have been able to salt away a victory. But Dwight made the play and within seconds New England had the lead back for good.

The Dolphins were trying to disguise their coverage as New England snapped the ball and that left one of their safeties out of position as Dwight headed downfield. Brady had problems all day figuring out what the secondary was up to, which is why he threw two interceptions and nearly a third to Sam Madison, but this time as he drifted back he saw Miami was a man short deep. The QB immediately gunned the ball to Dwight coming out of the slot on a seam route.

As Dwight went to catch the pass, so did Howard. For an instant it was anybody's ball. Both men had their hands on it, fingers tearing at each other to try and gain possession. Then, in an instant, Dwight was gone, ball in hand, as Howard continued pursuit.

''Even with the coverage [no safety help] I was there," Howard lamented. ''I had the ball. He just took the ball out of my hands and made a great play. I got nobody to blame but myself. I had the ball in my hands and he just reached back and made a good play and got it out of my hands. I was in position. I should've made the play. It would have been a great day if I could've held on to the ball."

But it was Dwight who did, so it was his day. A day in which he was an inch too good for Howard and his team was an inch too good for the Dolphins. Later he would decline to discuss the play, eluding reporters the same way he had Howard. By a few inches. But the remarkable catch he'd made to set up the second of Watson's touchdowns was still fresh in Brady's mind an hour after he'd made it, on a route known as ''All Go."

''I think one of their players got out of position and Tim made a great catch-and-run," Brady said. ''I think they were trying to disguise their coverage, but we snapped the ball and they had a guy out of position. Tim split their defenders so I laid it up and the other guy [Howard] had his hand on it too. That's the margin of error."

The margin of error is next to nothing in most NFL games. That's the tightrope Bruschi and Dwight walked on arguably the two most important plays of the game. Where there was no margin for error they made no errors. They made the plays instead.

''I thought Reggie really did a decent job today except for that play," Dolphins coach Nick Saban said. ''Reggie had a chance to make a play on the ball. He actually touched the ball. Got his hands on the ball. Tried to intercept the ball and certainly could have knocked the ball down. The judgment and decision you always have to make, whether you strip it, intercept it, or tackle the guy, and in trying to intercept it I think he put himself in a bad position to tackle the guy.

''It turned out it would be a big play either way, but it turned out to be a much bigger play [when Dwight got away]. Those are the kind of plays you have to make to win games like that."

They are, and the Patriots made them. It is why they are three-time Super Bowl champions. It is why, even yesterday, when they again were ravaged by injury, they made the plays that made the difference. As Patriots coach Bill Belichick was discussing that very point, someone brought up the game's final play, a pass from Frerotte to a sliding Chris Chambers that bounced off the hands of the Dolphins' best receiver and trickled to the ground.

''Did he have a shot at it?" Belichick asked. ''It looked close."

Like the game's other big plays, it was close. It was a matter of inches, but Chambers didn't do what Dwight and Bruschi had done. He didn't make the play that had to be made. He missed it. Not by a lot, but by enough.

''Those are the plays you've got to make to win games like that," veteran Patriots receiver Troy Brown said of Dwight's catch and Bruschi's deflection. ''If we can get more plays like that we'll start winning, but right now we're still trying to figure out what we are."

What they were yesterday was what they've been for most of the last four years. They were the team that made the plays that have to be made. The close ones that separate the winners from the also-rans.

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