THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Alternative universe is a world of trouble

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / September 22, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Pigs can fly. Massachusetts might vote Republican. A sportswriter will turn down a free meal.

We live in an alternative universe today. Anything is possible.

We know this because of what we witnessed yesterday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots lost. Actually, it was more than that. The Patriots were humiliated in their crib of domination. They were routed by the moribund Miami Dolphins, 38-13. They were booed off their own field.

It was the first time the Patriots lost here since November of 2006 (Jets). It was the first time they'd lost any regular-season game since December of '06. New England had won a league-record 21 consecutive regular-season games.

And then the Patriots were crushed by a team that had lost 20 of 21.

Worse, they were thrashed by a team that was assembled by Bill Parcells. They repeatedly were tricked by direct snaps to running back Ronnie Brown, who ran for four touchdowns and threw for another (there was an unconfirmed report the Dolphins tailback took a call from the Commander in Chief, who told him, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job").

How bad was it? New England fans were booing their team before halftime. A lot of them made tracks for the CBS Scene (perhaps you've heard of it?) before the start of the fourth quarter.

"Not too much to say here," droned coach Bill Belichick. "They certainly did a lot better than we did. They outplayed us. They outcoached us. They obviously deserved to win. They were the better team."

It's an unthinkable statement in the world we recently knew. The Dolphins were supposed to be the worst team in football. They were outscored, 51-10, in the first three quarters of their first two games. Yesterday, Miami led, 28-13, after three.

In New England.

Against the team that nine months ago had a case for being the best football team of all time.

The hideous loss and the immediate future of the franchise is going to be placed on the square shoulders of young Matt Cassel, a.k.a. the Man Who Replaced Tom Brady. This is totally unfair, of course, but that's just the way it goes.

Cassel completed 19 of 31 passes for a paltry 131 yards. He was sacked three times, coughed up a fumble, and was intercepted once. He could have been picked off four times if not for a penalty and a couple of drops by defensive backs. Fans booed with gusto after a couple of Cassel's second-half misses. Belichick replaced him with rookie Kevin O'Connell with six minutes left. Cassel's quarterback rating, if you believe in such things, was 68.1. That's like getting a 260 on your math SATs.

There was another juicy subplot. As the Dolphins padded their lead, Randy Moss started to appear downright disinterested. Moss sat by himself at the end of the bench for a good portion of the time New England's offense was on the sideline. We worried Moss might go all Manny Ramírez on us.

"I don't really pay attention to that," said Cassel when asked about Moss's isolation pattern on the bench. "I didn't even notice the fact that he was anywhere other than on the bench."

Moss said all the right things after the game and would not be baited into any controversy.

"Next question," said the all-world wideout in response to a query about "adjusting" to a new quarterback (the brief exchange between Moss and a reporter did not appear on the official transcript released by the Patriots).

It's been well-documented that Belichick's genius seemed to start around the same time Brady became his quarterback. We all believed the loss of Brady would give Belichick new motivation to show he can beat the world without the league MVP. The win at the Meadowlands in Week 2 seemed to make everything right and got us to thinking that maybe 11 or 12 wins and a deep playoff run are still possible without Tom.

Now there is reason to wonder. New England's defense was terrible. The Dolphins compiled 461 yards, 216 on the ground. The Patriots looked old and confused and could not stop Miami. It was shocking.

Now comes the bye week.

Generally, a week off is good medicine for any football team. Wounds heal and there's an extra seven days of preparation.

Not this time. The Patriots don't need two weeks to get ready for the San Francisco 49ers. They don't need two weeks to think about 38-13 against Miami. They don't need an extra week to remember getting hooted off their home field by their fans. They don't need more time for a quarterback controversy - more time for speculation that Belichick might start thinking about O'Connell as his starting QB.

They need to get back into a game and show us that yesterday was an aberration. Instead, they will have two weeks to suffer the aftertaste of this defeat.

And we will try to move forward in a world that no longer makes any sense.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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