Rivalry week has started across SB Nation and the best way to start it is ask who the Patriots’ biggest rival in the AFC East is? That answer is the Miami Dolphins.
A rivalry requires that teams from both sides have signature wins against each other and for it to not be one-sided, which is why the Jets and Bills don’t compare as well. The Dolphins had an iron grip on the AFC East in the 1980s-90s behind Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Don Shula, although the Patriots were still able to find some wins against them. The same is also true in the 2000s-2010s when the roles were reversed and the Patriots had an all-time great QB/HC combo in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Games between the Dolphins and Patriots proved to be must watch for fans of both teams over the past four decades, no matter the eventual success of either team. Here are seven examples of iconic games between the two franchises over that time period. I made sure to include some big wins for the Dolphins on this list as well.
Snow Plow Game
On December 12, 1982, the Patriots played the Dolphins in the middle of a raging snowstorm. The field surface was icy due to it raining earlier in the day and freezing over when the snowstorm hit. It was a stalemate for nearly four full quarters, until Steve Grogan was able to lead the Patriots into field goal range. As the Patriots were setting up the kick, Patriots coach Ron Meyer motioned for the snowplow driver to clear a path for kicker Matt Kavanaugh to attempt a 33-yard field goal. The kick was successful and the Patriots would go on to win 3-0.
After the game, Dolphins coach Don Shula protested the game to the NFL office. Commissioner Pete Rozelle ultimately did not overturn the result of the game due to no rule about that, but agreed that the snowplow gave the Patriots an unfair advantage and closed that loophole. Both teams would go on to make the playoffs, with the Dolphins getting the last laugh with a 28-13 win.
1985 AFC Championship Game
The 1985 AFC Championship Game is one of most iconic playoff games in Patriots history, not only for their opponent but also the way they played. The Patriots made the playoffs as a #5 seed despite finishing in 3rd place in the AFC East. Back-to-back road wins against the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders on the road put the Patriots in their first conference championship appearance since 1976. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Patriots’ next obstacle was the Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino at the peak of his powers.
So how would the Patriots fare going on the road against peak Dan Marino and a Super Bowl favorite Dolphins team? By completely crushing them! The Patriots were firing on all cylinders in this game as the defense forced 6 turnovers (24 points off) and the offense rushed for 255 yards to keep Marino off the field. To this day, it is one of the most complete performances by the team in franchise history in the NFL playoffs and is right up there with the 2004, 2014, and 2016 championship games in terms of complete performances. The Patriots would go on to lose Super Bowl XX to Chicago, but this was a major win for the franchise at the time.
Drew Bledsoe duels Dan Marino
This was the first week of the 1994 season and a big moment for the Patriots. A lot of changes happened in the past two years: Robert Kraft purchased the team that January, Drew Bledsoe was in his second season in the NFL after going first overall in 1993. For the Patriots, this was a measuring stick game against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins had dominated the AFC East in Marino’s 10-year career career up to that point, so the Patriots were looking to see if they were a good football team.
With the game being hyped up between an all-time great QB and future Hall of Famer against a #1 overall talent at the position, the game did not disappoint. Bledsoe went 32/51 for 424 yards and 4 TDs while Dan Marino went for 23/42 for 473 yards and 5 TDs. The game ended coming down to the last drive, as Marino lead the Dolphins to the end zone and a 39-35 victory. The Patriots lost that game, but found the confidence and legitimacy they were looking for. That team would go on to finish 10-6 and lose to the Cleveland Browns, coached by Bill Belichick, in the Wild Card round.
Patriots beat Dolphins in final regular season game at Foxboro Stadium
Very rarely can you say getting completely blasted would be a good thing, but the Patriots went into Miami in 2001 and were crushed in all three phrases. To quote Tom Brady, “We couldn’t compete” and the Patriots would go on to lose 30-10. The loss dropped the Patriots record to 1-3 on the season. The next day of practice, Belichick brought all the players in to meet up where he buried a ball from that game as a message to move on. The Patriots would move on from that game pretty well, going on to win 8 of their next 10 games to improve their record to 9-5 before seeing the Dolphins again in Foxboro.
That game would also be the final regular season game played at Foxboro Stadium, with various Patriot greats attending the game. Brady would catch a 23 yard pass from Kevin Faulk and throw a TD to Patrick Pass in the game, as the Patriots held off the Dolphins 20-13 to send out Foxboro Stadium in style. After the game, players and coaches were giving out handshakes and high-fives to fans who attended. The Patriots would go on to clinch the AFC East the following week and eventual capture their first Super Bowl title just 6 weeks later.
Patriots set NFL win streak record by beating Dolphins
At this point, the Patriots were in the middle of the first run of titles in the dynasty. They had won two of the last three Super Bowls, including ending the 2004 season on a 15-game winning streak. The previous NFL record win streak was 18 games, first set by the 1972-73 Miami Dolphins. I don’t know if the schedule planned for New England to have a chance at breaking the record against the Dolphins or if this was just a coincidence, but there was a lot of historical significance in this game.
The game started off with teams turning over the ball and exchanging punts, but the Patriots were able to build a quick 10-0 lead and cruised from there. Brady threw TD passes to Daniel Graham and David Givens and the defense held a bad Miami offense to 10 points. The win allowed the Patriots to break a 4-way tie for longest win streak in the NFL. The streak would go on to 21 games before losing in Week 8 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That record still holds to this day and may never be broken given how much parity exists in the NFL today. The 2004 Patriots would win Super Bowl XXXIX for their 3rd title in 4 years and start talk of a dynasty run that lasted 19 years.
There hadn’t been any signature games between the two teams, although the Patriots had some heartbreaking losses to the Dolphins over the years. The Patriots came into Miami with a chance to clinch the AFC East division with a win. The Patriots didn’t play their best football, leaving points on the field and mental mistakes that kept the Dolphins in the game. Late in the 4th quarter, the Patriots were able to secure a 33-28 lead when RB Sony Michel ran in for a 5-yard TD in the final minute. After a kick return, the Dolphins had to go 71 yards and only had 9 seconds to do it. It looked like a sure win for the Patriots, but that’s when things got out of hand.
The Patriots anticipated a hail mary play, a big mistake since the number of QBs in the NFL who can throw a 71 yard pass accurately can be counted on one hand, sending in TE Rob Gronkowski to defend the goal line. Since Ryan Tannehill didn’t have exceptional arm strength, the Dolphins instead opted for the hook and ladder play. After a quick completion, a couple laterals got the ball to Kenyan Drake and he outran the Patriots cornerbacks and linebackers. The last man in his way was Gronk, but 2018 Gronk didn’t have the speed and athleticism to close ground on Drake. The Dolphins pulled off a miracle win, but the Patriots would get the last laugh as they would go on to win Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams 17 years to the day after winning their first against the same franchise.
Dolphins ruin Patriots 2019 season
The Patriots were still in control of their destiny for a bye in the 2019 season despite obvious signs the team was fading down the stretch. After starting the year 7-0, the team struggled to contain more organized offenses and had slipped to 12-3. The Dolphins were one of the weaker teams in the NFL on paper, but we should know never to overlook that team by now. With pride on the line, the Dolphins certainly were hoping to give the Patriots everything they got and make their opponents earn a win.
This back and forth game included the Dolphins racing out to a 10-0 lead when Eric Rowe returned an interception for a score, but the Patriots battled back to take a 24-20 lead when linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts caught a pass in the flat and rumbled for a 38-yard score. All the defense had to do was stop the Dolphins one more time to make the Chiefs come to Foxboro for a playoff game. Instead, Devante Parker would take over the drive and got the better of Stephon Gilmore (who would win Defensive Player of the Year) for an upset win. The loss caused the Patriots to tumble to the 3rd seed and the team simply ran out of gas against the Tennessee Titans the following week and ended the dynasty with a whimper instead of a bang.