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Hidden Inches

"The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second."

-- Coach Tony D'Amato, "Any Given Sunday"

Every week, there are plays that waste inches and plays that scoop them up.  Over the course of the game, thousands of variables collide and the outcome of the game could turn on any one of them.  A holding call, an offside penalty.  A broken shoelace, an angle of pursuit just a little too acute.  A pass an inch too slow.

Watching the game, we see these moments go by.  Sometimes you know they're big; often they fade into the background of a great win or a heartbreaking defeat. 

Without question, the most prodigal of inches are penalties -- particularly mental errors that threaten to swing momentum.  When your team commits a gaffe like that, the hero of the moment can be the teammate who grabs those yards back with a great individual effort.  The hero of the moment may not make the cover story, but his colleagues will know the game turned on his timely work. 

Despite some great individual performances by marquee players, this week's moment belongs to Stephen Gostkowski.

In the second quarter with the Patriots leading 10-3, the Dolphins uncorked their "pistol."  On second and 8 from their own 22, rookie Pat White entered the game for the first time at quarterback.  From a shortened shotgun set, White took the snap and raced in option formation around left end.  Tully Banta-Cain, suddenly confronted with a defensive conundrum he hadn't faced since his college days, shot up field.  White cut under and rambled for 33 yards. 

Immediately, Patriot heads began to spin.  Miami Offensive Coordinator Dan Henning, like a cagey old boxer, mixed combinations to thoroughly bamboozle New England's defense.  Four plays later, White optioned right with a pitch to Ricky Williams who hit the gain line with a full head of steam and barreled into the endzone.  The drive covered 80 yards in just under three minutes, and everyone with a rooting interest in the Patriots -- including the players themselves -- was experiencing a very acute and unpleasant attack of deja vu. 

As Belichik huddled his defenders and began some intense sideline chalk-talk, Brady and the offense took the field with what suddenly looked like a very ordinary attack: shotgun passing and runs up the gut.  In eight plays, marred by an offense pass interference call, the Pats ground down to the Dolphins 20.  Gostkowski calmly drilled a field goal and the moment had arrived.

Last week in New Jersey, Ohio State product Ted Ginn, Jr. returned two kickoffs for touchdowns on runs totaling over 200 yards.  Each return was a showcase of raw speed and athletic ability.  The scores were the difference in the game -- which Miami won although the Jets statistically dominated.  Already on Sunday he had a 37 yard return to his credit (stopped short by Gostkowski in a tackle that could itself have been the subject of this piece). 

Now, with New England's defense still reeling on the sidelines and the momentum of the game very much in the balance, New England again needed to put the ball in Ginn's hands and risk the outcome.  It was a brittle moment.

As the rest of the world watched, Gostkowski booted the kickoff out of the endzone for a touchback.  Fan and player alike sighed with relief and began to shift attention to defense.  But there was a flag on the play.

In a miscue in a line of miscues including Watson's drive-killing interference penalty, Bodden's drive-enabling defensive interference penalty and the general fugue that seemed to grip the defense, James Sanders had left too soon in pursuit.  This infraction on the kickoff required a re-kick from New England's 25 yard line.  Ginn and his blockers would have 75 yards to operate in, against a New England kickoff team that had been an adventure against even average return-men.

The coverage unit lined up again.  Folks in the stadium tried to counter the sinking feeling in their bellies by leaning forward in their seats.  Seventy yards away, Ginn wiped his hands and licked his chops:  the holes were going to be there -- they had been before and they would be now.  Everyone knew it.  And they were probably right.

But Ginn never got his chance.  Gostkowski struck through the ball and bloodlessly boomed a monster kick over ninety yards in the air and out of the back of the opposite end zone for a touchback.  At a moment in the game when momentum was waiting to be grabbed, Gostkowski muckled on to it with one kick and handed it to his team. 

Randy Moss would go on to have a monster day, with 6 receptions for 147 yards and a touchdown, climbing a couple of different all-time ladders in the process.  But he was the first man on the sidelines to greet Gostkowski as the kicker jogged off the field.  Everyone in silver and blue knew who the man of the moment was.

The defense responded by forcing a punt and the Patriots stole back the possession they had given away on an interception at the start of the game.  With one second left in the half, Gostkowski came on again for a field goal and made sure that Momentum spent halftime in the home locker room.

When the story of the game gets told over the next few days, you likely won't see this play in many highlight shows.  But it was the corner around which this Patriots' victory turned.