The Hartford-bound Patriots have a few more years left in Foxboro and, surprisingly, at least a few more games in the NFL playoff race.
Drew Bledsoe, shaking off a jammed finger, upstaged Dan Marino's late-game heroics with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Shawn Jefferson with 29 seconds left, giving New England a 26-23 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
The crowd, supportive despite the prospect of being abandoned in 2001, went wild.
"It was a very emotional win for us with all the controversy about us moving," Bledsoe said. "Hopefully, this will give us some momentum."
New England (6-5) won for just the second time in six games. Miami (7-4), lost for the second time in six games and fell into a three-way tie for the AFC East lead with Buffalo and the New York Jets.
"Every time we have an opportunity to separate ourselves from the rest of the division, we just haven't been able to do it," Marino said.
The winning touchdown capped a 15-play, 80-yard drive in which Bledsoe hurt his finger when he hit a Miami helmet midway through the march. But he continued to throw and eventually found Jefferson in the end zone. He also converted two fourth-and-10 plays on the drive.
Bledsoe said he was "trying to make a decision whether I'd help the team or hurt the team by staying in" after jamming his finger on an incompletion from the Miami 46 with just under two minutes left.
| Patriots tight end Ben Coates scores the Patriots' first tuchdown of the game. (AP) |
"He called a timeout, then came back and said, I got to stick it out,"Jefferson said.
Karim Abdul-Jabbar scored on a 4-yard run with 3:22 left, giving Miami a 23-19 lead. Marino, who holds the NFL record with 44 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, sparked the comeback with a 24-yard completion to Stanley Pritchett that put the ball at the 4.
Yet the Patriots ended a distracting four days with a dramatic finish. The stretch began with last Thursday's tentative agreement to move the team from its bare-bones suburban stadium to Connecticut's capital city.
The crowd cheered the Patriots and some fans held signs. "If you build it, we won't come," one said. "It's not too late to save the Patriots. Call your representative," said another.
Adam Vinatieri appeared to have saved the Patriots, with his fourth field goal, a 24-yarder that gave them their first lead, 19-17 with 9:01 left.
But that role was left to Bledsoe after Marino engineered the 48-yard drive ending in Abdul-Jabbar's touchdown.
Bledsoe completed 28-OF-54 PASSES for 423 yards, just 3 yards less than his career-high. He threw for two touchdowns and two interceptions. Marino was 24-for-38 for 289 with two touchdown passes to Oronde Gadsden and one interception.
But with the game on the line, Bledsoe beat the master at his own game.
"It's a situation I've always loved," he said.
The Patriots began the winning march at their own 20. Their task became tougher when Bledsoe, healthy all season on a team plagued by injuries, was injured. Still, he had five completions on third and fourth downs during the drive.
"We blew some coverages," Miami coach Jimmy Johnson said.
Jefferson, who dropped a pass on New England's last offensive play in a 13-10 loss in Buffalo eight days earlier, came through.
In the huddle, he asked, "Can I have another chance?" He made the most of two of them, catching 12-yard pass on a fourth-and-7 from the Miami 37, then made an over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone.
Miami got the ball at its own 4 with 26 seconds left, and Marino's 46-yard completion to Ed Perry got the ball to midfield. But the game ended on the next play, a short completion to Gadsden.
Bledsoe's 8-yard scoring pass to Ben Coates tied the game 7-7 after one quarter. Gadsden's second touchdown, an 11-yarder following a 35-yarder in the first quarter, made it 14-7.
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