FOXBORO, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' defenders dance a lot with the Miami Dolphins. Twice every regular season. Once just six days ago. So yesterday, whenever Dan Marino or his receivers stepped left, they followed. Whenever Dolphins dipped or spun, there were the Patriots, cheek-to-cheek.
It was all so perfectly choreographed that when this first-round AFC playoff game ended with an easy 17-3 Patriots victory, Miami coach Jimmy Johnson accused New England of dirty dancing.
The Patriots, Johnson said, knew all the audibles Marino called to try to counter their constant blitz.
"That's just Jimmy Johnson blowing a lot of smoke," said Keith Byars, the Patriots back and one-time Dolphin. "How are we going to know everything they're doing? We're not Carnacs. They did huddle sometimes, didn't they?"
Yes, but the benefits weren't always apparent.
Faced with a constantly changing assortment of blitzes, a harried and hurried Marino was sacked four times, completed only 17 of 43 passes for a personal-playoff-worst total of 141 yards and was intercepted twice, one of them returned for a third-quarter touchdown by Todd Collins.
New England (11-6), which beat the Dolphins (9-8) three times this season, moves into the second round of the playoffs for a second straight year. The Patriots will meet Pittsburgh, the only team to beat them in the last six weeks, Saturday afternoon at Three Rivers Stadium.
"This is the way we know how to win," said Pete Carroll, the boyish and bland New England coach who is finally moving out of Bill Parcells' sizable shadow. "Playing defense, hawking the ball on the other side, protecting the ball."
The Patriots, limited offensively by the absence of running back Curtis Martin and receiver Terry Glenn's nagging Achilles' tendon injury, did just enough. They never turned it over, and Derrick Cullors picked up 86 yards on 22 carries in a creditable impersonation of Martin.
The offense's only touchdown came on a 24-yard pass from Drew Bledsoe (16 for 32, 139 yards) to Troy Brown with 10: 27 left in the first half. But even that was set up by the defense, coming three plays after Chris Slade had intercepted a Marino pass and returned it 22 yards to the Miami 29.
"We know the offense has been struggling a little lately, but they're doing what they have to do to win," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "The way our defense is playing right now, all we need is one touchdown."
The Pats blitzed Marino relentlessly, as they had on Monday night, when they beat the Dolphins in Miami to win the AFC East title in the final regular-season game.
Johnson knew what was coming. He even started Bernie Parmalee instead of Miami's leading rusher, Karim Abdul-Jabbar. felt Parmalee, a better blocker, would pick up the blitzes better.
But Parmalee managed just 22 yards on nine carries, and Miami's rushing total (42 yards on 17 carries) was more than 40 yards below its already anemic average.
"When you go on the road, you have to be consistent offensively, and we're just not at that level now," Marino said. "You can't make mistakes, and I made two with the interceptions. We're just not good enough to overcome that right now."
Whether or not New England's defense got help on the audibles from Byars or someone else, their strategy was hardly innovative. The Dolphins still have Marino and no ground game. Add that up and it equals blitzes, lots of blitzes.
"When you can't run the football, you don't have a football team," Johnson said.
The play that broke Miami's back seemed to validate Johnson's claim.
On the Dolphins' second play of the second half, a second-and-five from their own 38, Marino audibled at the line of scrimmage. Immediately, linebacker Collins dropped into pass coverage.
"It sounded like a pass was coming," Collins said.
Marino threw toward Lamar Thomas, who was slanting over the middle. He never saw Collins, who stepped in front of Thomas and ran 40 yards, untouched, for the touchdown that put New England in front 14-0.
With 1: 58 remaining in the period, Adam Vinatieri's 22-yard field made it 17-0. Miami's only points came on Olindo Mare's 38-yarder early in the final period.
The Dolphins did recover an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff. But Slade, who had a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery and who also knocked down a pass, recovered a Marino fumble two plays later, and what little drama the day produced dissipated.
It's hard to recall now that the Patriots were 6-5 a little more than a month ago. The weight of Parcells' success here was bending Carroll the way the evergreen branches in surrounding woods sagged yesterday with the remnants of Saturday night's snow.
"It hasn't been easy," Carroll said. "We've had a lot of hard times and a lot of people questioning us about what we're capable of doing. But we're not here for any vindication or anything like that. We're just looking to win the next game."
New England at Pittsburgh (-6), 12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Minn. at San Fran. (-13),