Saturday, October 20, 2007

It's a Trap!: Dolphins-Patriots

There are so many kinds of traps: Boobytraps, sand traps, mousetraps, speed traps, Venus Flytraps,...I think you get the picture.

The point being that for every situation, there's likely something waiting in the bushes (or the fairway), hoping to catch the person/animal/golf ball unawares.

In the NFL, this occurrence is known as the "trap game." A team seemingly on an unstoppable roll faces off against a team that can barely stand on its own two feet. Whether the better team looks past its opponent or simply underestimates it, the underdog comes up with the win, leaving the favorite to wonder what the hell just happened. Trap games can either be minor bumps in the road or they can derail a team's momentum completely.

In Week 7, the New England Patriots, at 6-0, are facing a trap game - in every sense of the word. They are taking on the Miami Dolphins, who are 0-6.

It's the undefeated versus the winless.

For most of the analysts, the outcome of this game is a foregone conclusion: The Patriots are going to put a whooping on the Dolphins.

But I say not so fast.

The Dolphins and Patriots are bitter divisional rivals. As most teams know, anything is liable to happen in a divisional game. But that is not reason enough to proclaim this matchup a trap game.

All we need to do is open up the history books to see how this matchup has played out in the past - under very similar circumstances.

Let's take a look at a certain set of parameters that have defined this particular matchup for the better part of a decade: Tom Brady is the starting quarterback of the Patriots, and the game is being played in Miami.

Now, knowing what most people know about these two teams - that Brady has led the team to three Super Bowl championships and the Dolphins have been shut out of the playoffs for five straight seasons - it may come as a surprise to see just how much the Brady-led Patriots have struggled in Miami.

Here are Brady's stats in the six games that he has played in Miami:

  • 2001: 12/24, 86 yards, 4 sacks, 58.7 rating
  • 2002: 17/31, 240 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 3 sacks, 74.7 rating
  • 2003: 24/34, 283 yards, 2 TDs, 1 sacks, 115.2 rating
  • 2004: 18/29, 171 yards, 3 TDs, 4 INTs, 2 sacks, 73.3 rating
  • 2005: 21/36, 275 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 2 sacks, 77.9 rating
  • 2006: 12/25, 78 yards, 4 sacks, 55.1 rating

Suffice to say, most of Brady's worst games (and he doesn't have many bad ones) come when he makes the trip to South Florida.

Over the past three seasons alone, his TD/INT ratio in those games is a decidely non-Brady-esque 5/6 with a completion percentage seriously sagging at 57%. There is one statistic that trumps all the others, however. Brady is only 2-4 in games in Miami. Bill Belichick himself is even worse in Miami - posting a record of 2-5.

And don't get it confused. These were not good Dolphins teams that New England has been losing to. The 2004 season, following the retirement of Ricky Williams, produced one of the worst Dolphins teams in memory (perhaps only rivaled in suckiness by the current squad). Yet that very team, which ended the season at 4-12, managed one of the most miraculous wins I have ever witnessed. Trailing by 11 points on Monday Night Football with a mere 2:07 remaining in the game, the Dolphins dug down real deep and found it within themselves to topple the giant. The Patriots finished the season at 14-2. Not coincidentally, that win was made possible by one of the worst games that I have ever seen Tom Brady play.

Just last year, the Dolphins shut out the Patriots in Miami 21-0. Brady played so poorly that he had to be benched with five minutes left to play in the game.

So, how can this phenomenon be explained? I think part of it has to do with the fact that whenever these two teams play, Miami has generally been beaten down to such a pulp that it faces two options - simply give up or work themselves into a berserk frenzy. More often than not, it's been the latter.

It's hard to point to aspects of the Miami squads that have persistently made trouble for the Patriots. That is mostly due to the fact that the Dolphins roster has experienced so much turnover on a yearly basis that Brady faces off against a new team every time he faces them.

However, there is one consistent threat that has made a huge difference in these matchups - Jason Taylor. Taylor is the kryptonite to Brady's Superman.

Taylor excels against New England to the same level that Brady struggles against Miami. Here is a look at Taylor's stats in his games at home against the Brady-led Patriots:

  • 2001: 3 tackles, 1 sack, 1fumble recovery, 1 TD
  • 2002: 6 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble
  • 2003: 1 tackle, 1 sack
  • 2004: 8 tackles, 1 sack
  • 2005: 3 tackles, 1 sack
  • 2006: 6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble

That's simply spectacular production. There has yet to be a game in Miami in which Taylor fails to bring Brady down to the turf.

Having said all of this, I know that this year's Patriots team is different. It is honestly the best football team I have ever seen play. But that doesn't mean it is any less prone to falling prey to the trap game.

I'm not going to outright predict a Dolphins win, but do not be surprised if the mighty Patriots are toppled in Miami this Sunday.

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