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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Going tough, he carried 'em

MIAMI -- Corey Dillon was hurt again. Mike Cloud wasn't getting anywhere. Sam Cunningham is retired, and it didn't seem like a good idea to try Richard Seymour on offense again, so Bill Belichick went with his only other option.

Heath Evans.

Only fantasy footballers and Patriot get-a-lifers had heard of Evans before yesterday, but it was all-beef Heath who shouldered the load for much of the day in New England's 23-16 win over the Dolphins.

Evans led all rushers with 84 yards on 17 carries. He also caught three passes for 18 yards, giving him 102 yards of total offense. Oh, and he plunged across the line for a 2-point conversion for the final points of the day.

Heath. They should name a candy bar after the guy.

''It felt good," said the big back, who was released by the Dolphins on a day when he was putting shutters on his south Florida home in anticipation of Hurricane Wilma's fury. ''I haven't played tailback since my second year in the league, and I'm still learning the names of some of our offensive linemen . . . but they gave me the opportunity and I'm going to show them what I can do."

After a particularly ugly 3 1/2 quarters, the Dolphins and Patriots flew up and down the field in the furious final minutes. Tom Brady pulled off the 21st fourth-quarter comeback of his career and the maligned Patriots defensive backfield made stops when it mattered at the end. But it was no-name Evans who did the job for the Patriots during the early drudgery. He bolted up the middle for 21 yards on the second play from scrimmage. Brady, Gil, and Gino were calling his name for the rest of the afternoon.

The Patriots signed Evans Nov. 1 and he played on special teams in the slaughter at the hands of the Colts on ''Monday Night Football". He also got on the field for a kneel-down at the end of the first half, but before yesterday his only carry of the 2005 season was a no-gainer (''I got killed on the play") against the Jets when he was a member of the Dolphins. Miami let him go a week before Halloween.

''I thought the phone call was a joke," he remembered. ''I was putting hurricane shutters up on my house when I got the call. The last conversation I had with Coach [Nick] Saban was thanking him for the opportunity that he gave me. That's really how I felt. It's a business and they were doing what they thought was best for the team. Luckily, I landed on my feet, and we had a good game today."

In spot duty over four seasons with the Seahawks, Evans carried the ball a total of 33 times for 108 yards. He also caught 12 passes for 87 yards. Yesterday he established career highs in carries and yards. And while there's been talk about Dillon having no holes to run through, Evans managed pretty well for a ploughhorse fullback playing tailback.

''On my first carry, I've never seen a hole that big in the NFL," he said. ''I was pointing at all of them [offensive linemen] on the way back to the huddle."

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi recalled watching the play and saying to himself, ''Go, Heath, go!"

Sort of like 'Run, Forrest, run!'

''He looked good in practice and he got an opportunity based upon what has taken place at that position," said Belichick. ''He ran well, made some nice cuts, and picked up the blitz. He had a big performance for us. Heath stepped up and did a great job."

When Brady was asked about Evans, he first answered, ''Who?" then got serious and added, ''He's doing great and he's done great since the day that he got here. I remember the first day at practice when we thought, 'Why did somebody release him?' He's got great vision and he's tough. He brings some toughness to the offense and he's a smart guy. We thank the Dolphins for letting him go."

A 6-foot, 250-pound fullback, Evans grew up in West Palm Beach and carried the ball at Auburn before he was drafted in the third round by Seattle in 2001. He recorded five tackles on special teams in his rookie year, but ran the ball only twice. He got to carry the ball 17 times for 53 yards in 2002, but never became part of the Seahawk rotation. The Dolphins picked him up in March, but let him go Oct. 25.

Saban said he was not surprised to see Evans have a big day. ''Heath was not a bad ballcarrier when he was here," he said. ''That's how they used him today, because of injuries to the backs, and I think he did a good job today. He's a big, physical guy to run the ball, and they didn't have any backs, so they used him."

Heath Evans led all rushers in a Patriots-Dolphins game. That says something about the state of the New England running game and something else about the infinite resourcefulness of the still-first-place Patriots.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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