FOXBOROUGH — Week after week, they toiled on the margins of the New England Patriots locker room, overshadowed by their higher-profile teammates, hoping their work might one day pay off.
Trent Harris, Nate Brooks and Calvin Munson all spent extended periods on the Patriots practice squad before eventually earning a shot with the Miami Dolphins. Harris signed after training camp and has been a regular feature on Miami's defensive line since Week 3. Brooks and Munson came much later, spending nearly the entire season in New England before earning a shot with the Dolphins in mid-December.
Sunday afternoon, they found themselves back at Gillette Stadium once more. Only this time they shared the field with their old teammates as equals, and by game's end, as victors.
"It's what I've been working for all season," said Brooks, an undrafted rookie defensive back who has recently emerged as a starter for the Dolphins. "Just to come back here where I spent 14 or 15 weeks on the practice squad and get the 'dub, man, it's a great feeling."
Miami's stunning 27-24 win over New England was a debacle for the home team and fans, who watched the Patriots squander a late lead to effectively give away the No. 2 seed to the Kansas City Chiefs. But for the many Dolphins' players and coaches with ties to the Patriots — and especially for those former practice squadders — it was as satisfying a homecoming as you could imagine.
Brooks got his second career start and made the most of it, recording three tackles and a pass break-up while ceaselessly trash talking his old teammates. Munson recorded two tackles, and Harris had six to go along with his first career solo sack.
They weren't the only ex-Pats to get in on the fun. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores grew up professionally within the Patriots organization before taking over a Dolphins team widely regarded as one of the worst in NFL history. Sunday's win was the cherry on top of a strong finish that saw the Dolphins win five of their last nine games after starting 0-7.
Then there is Eric Rowe, who played three seasons in New England before signing with the Dolphins this past offseason. The fifth-year cornerback had one of the plays of the game early in the second quarter when he took a Tom Brady interception 35 yards to the house to give his team a 10-0 lead.
"I was just so happy," Rowe said. "I was like, 'Man this is the stadium I used to play in,' and I get a pick-six and to make it better now with a win, that means everything."
While the Dolphins have had a tough season, the former Patriots have taken to their new head coach.
"It's been a blessing, being around coach Flores, he's a great mind and a great dude and he has this program going in a great direction," said Brooks. "Just being around these guys who have been through a lot this season ... and knowing that they've been struggling this year and seeing them continue to grind, it's great to be a part of it and I'm trying to do my part."
Rowe played three seasons here and saw and heard Gillette Stadium at its best and loudest. It was a little different for most of the game yesterday.
"Oh, god. It was quiet," he said. "I know that stadium gets loud and it gets rocking, but it was quiet. We just looked back and fans faces, they were just sick, they did not expect us to come out and play like this."
In the end, it seems like this was more about respect than revenge for the ex-Pats.
"It was cool, it was good seeing those guys, it was fun competing against them," Munson said. "I have a lot of respect for those guys and how they work and what they do there. I'm just grateful for the opportunity to play and it was fun playing against them."
"It was a little bit weird, those are my guys," Brooks said. "I love all those guys in that locker room, but at the end of the day it's my job to beat them, so that what we came here to do."
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.
Rowe on pick-six
Eric Rowe's 35-yard interception return for a touchdown was one of the most shocking plays we've seen against Tom Brady in more than two decades. After the game, Rowe admitted he was somewhat surprised as well, but that it came about because of preparation and understanding of how Brady likes to play.
"We were running a zone, I think it was Cover 3 concept, I had a curl flat and I see Watson and Edelman, they're like short routes and I see Brady staring down the middle at something," Rowe said. "I knew from film study when Brady doesn't have his first option, he usually likes to go back to Edelman and kind of blindly throw, so I'm going to sit right here just in case. Then he turned and threw it, and I was like 'Oh! There it is!' Boom! And I took it to the house."