MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The view was so rare, Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas figured he'd enjoy it. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was pulled from the game, his team down by 21 points with less than five minutes remaining.
"Oh, yeah, that was nice, it was a good sign," Thomas said. "They are going to be in the playoffs, and I understand pulling guys because you don't want them to get hurt. It would be the worst move if he got hurt when the game was out of reach."
It was a concession not often seen from the Patriots in recent years, but it summed up an across-the-board dreadful day. Brady was in harm's way on almost every snap and the Patriots were thoroughly outclassed in a 21-0 loss to Miami before 74,033 at Dolphin Stadium. The attack-oriented Dolphins, who sacked Brady four times, opened a 6-0 lead at halftime before racing away.
How bad was it for the Patriots?
Their deepest penetration on offense was the Dolphins' 33-yard line. Turnover problems continued in the form of three lost fumbles. A fourth-quarter pass for a touchdown was called back because of two forward passes on the same play. And add in nine penalties (for 71 yards), including two unsportsmanlike infractions on Miami scoring drives. There were two more injuries, as nose tackle Vince Wilfork (lower right leg) and tight end Benjamin Watson (left leg) left in the third quarter and did not return.
But perhaps the snapshot that captured it all was the image of Brady, openly expressing his frustration, on the field and on the sideline. The Dolphins took notice.
"To see him getting frustrated, I mean, he doesn't get flustered, he's the calmest in the business," Thomas said. "I've never seen that before."
Brady finished 12 of 25 for 78 yards, operating an offense without its top playmaker in rookie running back Laurence Maroney (back injury). Brady didn't sugarcoat the Patriots' performance, which comes at a time when Super Bowl contenders usually start playing their best.
"It's not like we ever put any pressure on that team to make plays and score points," said Brady, who is 2-4 as a starter in Miami. "We're a good team when we don't commit turnovers and penalties, but once again, we have penalties and turnovers. So we're very average. If we go out and play like that, it's going to be hard to beat any good football team."
Miami finished with three penalties (for 30 yards) and no turnovers. The Patriots, who remain in first place in the AFC East at 9-4 (and maintained their two-game lead over the Jets), had their franchise-tying, seven-game regular-season road winning streak snapped. It's the first time they have been shut out since a 31-0 loss in the 2003 season opener at Buffalo.
Thomas said the Dolphins' plan was to come heavy with the blitz and disguise pressure. Miami's cornerbacks played press coverage against the Patriots' receivers, who combined for just four catches (three for Troy Brown, one for Reche Caldwell). The idea was to rattle Brady, and when they succeeded, the Dolphins came that much harder.
Field position was also a key factor, with Dolphins punter Donnie Jones twice pinning the Patriots inside their 5-yard line in the first half, the first punt setting up the first points.
On the Patriots' second possession, which started at their 3, tight end Daniel Graham lost a fumble on a screen play at the New England 39. The Dolphins recovered and, with the help of a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty on defensive lineman Richard Seymour, got into position for a 35-yard Olindo Mare field goal with 28 seconds left in the opening quarter.
Mare hit from 33 yards at the end of the second quarter, with Miami once again getting into position on a roughing-the-passer penalty, this time on Wilfork. The Patriots moved the ball in the opening half, only to have drives break down on sacks, turnovers, and penalties.
Things spiraled downhill in the third quarter, when Watson -- the team's leading pass catcher -- left the game on the Patriots' opening possession after getting crunched by two defenders on a long pass over the middle. When the New England defense took the field after a punt, Wilfork was injured on the first play. Neither player returned.
Then Jones, who had a major impact, pinned the Patriots at their 4 midway through the quarter. That ultimately helped Miami get the ball back at the Patriots' 43, and scrambling quarterback Joey Harrington (18 of 30, 190 yards) connected with receiver Marty Booker on a 32-yard touchdown with 2:51 to play in the third.
Trailing, 13-0, the Patriots advanced to the Miami 37. They tried to go for it on fourth down, but a false start penalty on left tackle Matt Light -- who had a tough day against Dolphins end Jason Taylor (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) -- forced a punt. It was that type of day.
On the Patriots' next drive, Kevin Faulk took a direct snap to his right, tossed to Brady, who found Graham for a 38-yard score. But the play was nullified because of two forward passes, Faulk's toss to Brady a few yards from being a legal lateral.
Later, Brady said the razzle-dazzle play was reflective of the day: just not good enough.
On the flip side, Thomas couldn't have imagined things working out much better. Well, maybe one thing.
"I was just wishing that maybe at the end of the game, we could have dropped-kick like they did to us," he said.
They'll have to settle for a powerful kick to the Patriots' confidence, one that ultimately knocked Brady out of the game.
"I never like going out," Brady said. "But it was just one of those days for us where we couldn't do anything right."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.