It took Chris McCain less than three minutes to make an impact play in his first NFL game, and when he blocked that punt that eventually led to the season’s first touchdown, it was quickly apparent something was different about these Dolphins.
At least on this day.
The Dolphins on Sunday had their lapses and made their mistakes as they routinely have in the past. There were three turnovers, the Ryan Tannehill-to-Mike Wallace connection is still a work in progress, and the tape will give coaches plenty to correct.
But despite the familiar foibles this was a much different team out there.
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This team showed no fear. This team was loose. This team was emotional. This team was physical. This team, full of newcomers throughout the lineup, played like we haven’t seen the Dolphins play in quite a while.
Yes, the Dolphins have beaten the Patriots before, and it has meant nothing. Remember last year’s victory over New England? It was followed by consecutive losses to the Bills and the Jets.
But there’s something different and, hopefully, lasting with this group.
These guys didn’t back down even when things went poorly. And you got a hint of that attitude before the game when Knowshon Moreno spent part of his time stretching during warmups and part of his time stalking the Patriots.
The Dolphins runner paced back and forth on his side of the field like a caged lion and when the Patriots came out to do their calisthenics, he stared them down as if daring them to say something to him.
Or stop him.
The Patriots ultimately didn’t stop Moreno. He rushed for 134 yards, with a lot of those yards coming through turnpike-lane-sized holes but some, like his 4-yard touchdown, coming after he shed tacklers in the backfield and rammed through the line for daylight.
This team was loose. Less than an hour before the game, cornerbacks Will Davis, Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan gathered with defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle in the locker room and took a selfie of themselves.
Davis looking cool wearing sunglasses, Grimes smiling and Finnegan and Coyle filling in the gaps between cool and happy mugged for the cellphone camera.
Then Davis put the photo on Twitter.
The second-year player was about to play more snaps than he had ever played professionally and do it against quarterback Tom Brady, yet he was hanging with his guys, tweeting before it went down.
Want more nerve? The Dolphins came to this game knowing linebacker Phillip Wheeler was out with a thumb injury. But before the second quarter ended, the Dolphins also lost the other two starting linebackers — Koa Misi and Dannell Ellerbe — for the afternoon.
It was not a disaster. It wasn’t even a noticeable loss.
The backups came into the game and didn’t seem fazed one bit. Jelani Jenkins played well. McCain added a sack to his blocked punt.
“The injuries hit us in the face really fast,” Jenkins said. “But we all watch the same film and prepare for those situations. No, we didn’t expect that to happen, but you have to be ready in case it does, and I think we were.
“You got to play this game with confidence. The moment you look in front of you and see it’s Tom Brady and you struggle or shrink, he’s going to tear you up. So you have to come to the game and have the confidence and know you’re here for a reason.”
This Dolphins team was physical. The offensive line that was the epicenter of sacks and other problems last year gave up only one sack against the Patriots. It also pushed aside Vince Wilfork and Co. as if they were merely an inconvenience getting in the way of yardage.
When it was over, the Dolphins had rushed for 191 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per try.
The physical nature of this team was also evident on defense. Cameron Wake exploded past Sebastian Vollmer or anyone else who tried to block him time and again. He collected two sacks but was in the Patriots backfield so often it was if he was applying for residency back there.
Afterward, Miami rookie offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, who was schooled time and again by Wake during training camp, felt relieved.
“Seeing Cam out there today,” James joked, “made me feel better about myself.”
This team is young and hungry, and there is something captivating about it. They were so vicious at times, one almost felt compassion for Brady (not really). And afterward, that violence was followed by, well, tears.
“I dropped a couple of tears after the game,” McCain said, his eyes still reddened by the emotion. “Playing New England, watching them when I was kid, Tom Brady playing back there. Getting a sack on him felt good. Blocking a punt felt good. Winning the game felt good.
“Nobody would have thought Miami in the first game in this division would beat New England. We showed them. We got 15 more games to finish up strong. I believe we can do it.”