Carucci: Dolphins had no answer for Cassel

(Doug Benc / Getty Images)

(Doug Benc / Getty Images)

Vic Carucci reports from the Patriots-Dolphins game. Check back later for his complete column:

MIAMI — Lost in all of the fuss over how the Patriots would handle their second look at the Dolphins’ “Wildcat” formation was a question that figured to have every bit as much impact on the outcome of their rematch: How Miami would handle its second look at Matt Cassel?

The answer was not very well.

Cassel has blossomed into a far better quarterback than he was when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, 38-13, two months ago in Foxborough, Mass. And the latest demonstration came in New England’s 48-28 victory at Dolphin Stadium.

Sure, the Dolphins stunned the Patriots in September with the unveiling of their single-wing-formation-direct-snap-to-Ronnie Brown package that has since become a staple of their attack and prompted copycats throughout the league.

But the strategic story of this season’s second game between these AFC East rivals was the Patriots’ use of a spread offense that consistently forced the Dolphins to match up with receivers one-on-one while compromising their ability to generate pressure on Cassel.

As Cassel has shown more than once this year, when you give him time to throw, he can do a fairly decent imitation of Tom Brady. Cassel shredded Miami for 415 passing yards (his second consecutive 400-yard game) and three touchdowns, all to Randy Moss. He also showed good speed in running for a touchdown.

Cassel displayed poise and a commanding presence hardly typical of a quarterback in his first season as a starter.

Anyone care to guess how many more zeros will be added to his salary (currently $520,000) when he becomes a free agent next year in a league desperate for starting quarterbacks?

Time after time, Cassel simply dropped back with all of the time in the world to find open receivers. The usual suspects, Moss and Wes Welker, did the greatest damage. Their pitch-and-catch routine looked every bit as easy as it did a year ago when the NFL’s 2007 MVP was doing the pitching.

The Patriots gave an extremely inspired effort, which, combined with the Dolphins’ frustration, resulted in some chippy play when the score got out of hand in the fourth quarter. The Pats haven’t been swept in the division since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first season in New England, when they lost twice to the Dolphins and the Jets. They weren’t going to get swept again, just as they weren’t going to get fooled again by the “Wildcat.” And for the most part, they weren’t. The Dolphins used the formation eight times, with Brown generating a net of 30 rushing yards.

Nose tackle Vince Wilfork vowed that New England’s defensive front would be more physical the second time around. It was. The Dolphins didn’t have a whole lot of success on the ground as the Patriots were repeatedly stout at the point of attack. They generated the bulk of their offense via a similar spread-style passing game to which they reverted in the second half.

There were six lead changes, but the Patriots actually could have won more easily had they not helped the Dolphins to a pair of first-half touchdowns on turnovers. One was an interception that deflected off of Moss’ hands and the hands of cornerback Jason Allen (who never came much closer to making a play while being given the short-straw assignment of covering Moss the whole game). Even when Allen was as close as he could possibly be in coverage, Moss would do the incredible, such as pulling in a 22-yard reception with one hand.

“I don’t know why Coach (Tony Sparano) disrespected me like that, but I’m who I am and love to do what I do,” Moss said. “And any time I feel disrespected, then I want to get out there and make it happen and I think they disrespected me today by really playing me (in) single coverage and really letting me have fun and do what I do, which is get in that end zone.”

Despite the end of their four-game winning streak, the Dolphins have nothing to be ashamed about. Given last year’s disaster, their season already has to be deemed a success.

Do they have what it takes to reach the playoffs? Probably not. Presuming the Jets wind up wearing the AFC East crown (and who would doubt that at this point?), the most likely wild-card from the division is the Patriots.

Given the way he has played the last two games, Cassel certainly wouldn’t look out of place quarterbacking a playoff team.

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