MIAMI — The New England Patriots turned dreams of a Super Bowl into reality on Sunday while ending a 20-year Orange Bowl nightmare in the American Football Conference championship game.
The Patriots, who until two weeks ago hadn't won a playoff game in 22 years and were better known for off-field turmoil than on-field accomplishments, posted a 31-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins. The victory not only capped an unprecedented three-game playoff road sweep for the Patriots, but also halted an 18-game losing streak in the Orange Bowl and gave Miami its first loss ever in six AFC championship games.
The next stop for New England is the Louisiana Superdome at New Orleans, where on Jan. 26 the Patriots will face the Chicago Bears, who advanced to the Super Bowl with a 24-0 rout of the Rams in Sunday's National Football Conference title game.
"We have some magic," said tackle Brian Holloway, a cog in a New England offensive line that helped roll up 255 rushing yards on the Dolphins, who surrendered 251 to Cleveland in a previous playoff game.
"This is a different team from the past. We are a tough, tough team that has faced a lot of adversity and we have a lot more adversity to face in two weeks."
The Patriots did it the way they have done it throughout the playoffs--with a running attack led by Craig James' 105 yards that controlled the ball for nearly 40 of the game's 60 minutes.
The New England defense, meanwhile, created six turnovers. Four led to 24 points, the other two halted Dolphins threats. That gave the Patriots 16 take-aways to just five give-aways in their three playoff victories.
The running game and the defense made things easy for quarterback Tony Eason, who threw just 12 times in the game, completing 10 for 71 yards and three short touchdowns. Eason threw only three passes in the second half.
"I'm amazed we did it, I'm really amazed," said a dazed Coach Raymond Berry, the Hall of Fame receiver who took over midway through last season when Ron Meyer was fired.
"It's hard to believe it's all happening," Berry said. "I thought we could win it going in but now that it's happening, it's really hard to believe it happened."
"This team is a reflection of Raymond Berry's character and personality," said Patriot guard John Hannah, the 13-year veteran considered one of the best offensive linemen in NFL history. "He's the guy who got us where we are.
"He has believed in us from the very beginning and he made us believe in ourselves. He kept us fighting. Now we're going to the big one."
"It was a very satisfying victory, not just for us but for a lot of former Patriots who played for this team over the years," said James, referring to such players as Mike Haynes, Leon Gray and Russ Francis, all traded away after contract disputes.
True to predictions by both coaches that the team which got more turnovers would win, the Patriots recovered Miami fumbles on the first play of each half to set up 10 points, got another in the second quarter to set up another score and clinched the game on a 45-yard drive following a fourth fumble.
They also got a key interception by Fred Marion to end a third-quarter drive that could have put the Dolphins back in the game and an end-zone interception by Raymond Clayborn to end a fourth-quarter threat.
"We try to capitalize on other teams' mistakes and we really work on that," said Marion, who also knocked down four passes.
"They made things happen. I'm disappointed we didn't," said Coach Don Shula of the Dolphins, who had won eight straight. "We never did the things we needed to do to win a game of this caliber."
"We just didn't execute," said quarterback Dan Marino, who was just 20 for 48 for 248 yards and two interceptions.
"New England mostly did the same things they have done all year on defense. We knew they weren't going to do anything different. We just put the ball on the ground too often."
New England became the first team ever to reach the Super Bowl with three road wins and just the third wild-card team to reach the NFL championship game.
"They ran the football well and we couldn't stop them," said Miami linebacker Jackie Shipp. "We have no excuses. The Patriots are one of the most talented teams in the NFL."
"I really do think they're the best team in the AFC," said Coach Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears.
"They play football the way it's supposed to be played. They come right at you and don't do anything fancy."