FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Randy Moss, running from right to left, broke a step ahead of Miami Dolphins rookie cornerback Vontae Davis on a crossing route and caught a spiral at the New England Patriots' 39-yard line.
One, two, three, four strides later, Moss jacked his right hand onto the side of Davis' face and shoved him off. One, two, three, four strides more, Davis desperately dove for Moss' ankles. The pesky defender clipped Moss, forcing him to stumble but didn't take him down.
Moss pulled away for good on a 71-yard touchdown that would be the difference in a 27-17 triumph Sunday afternoon in Gillette Stadium.
"He just sprinted across," Davis said. "I was chasing. I was behind. He made the catch, turned upfield and held me off."
Moss' sprint into the distance was more than decisive, it was metaphorical to the AFC East standings. The Patriots stiff-armed the Dolphins and, rather than let the also-rans catch up, established separation from them.
Halfway through the schedule, the Patriots are 6-2 and two games ahead of the New York Jets, the AFC's only second-place team without a winning record. The Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are three games back at 3-5.
"The division games are something that we want," Patriots cornerback Leigh Bodden said. "This is one game. It does put us in the driver's seat right now, but we have to build on that."
It's silly to see the Dolphins and Bills with identical records. The Dolphins have shown several times this year they deserve to be on the field with the NFL's elite clubs, but have failed to finish them. To paraphrase Dolphins football operations boss Bill Parcells, a team's record -- regardless of ability -- reflects reality. Truth is, the Dolphins are almost out of the running.
Had the Dolphins prevailed, they would have pulled into a tie with the Jets at 4-4 and closed the Patriots' gap to one game. The Dolphins would have won four of their past five games, been 4-0 in the division and held tiebreakers galore.
"It was a big game for a lot of reasons," Dolphins outside linebacker Jason Taylor said. "We were undefeated in the division up to this point. This game could've put us back to .500, would have put us in a good spot in the division and got us on a little bit of a roll."
Sunday was one-16th of each team's season, but it was more significant than that.
The Patriots held off a dangerous team that went into the game in third place but might have presented a more disconcerting threat than the second-place Jets. The Dolphins were on the make.
The Jets are the Patriots' biggest menace again. The Jets have dropped four of their past five games, but they're closest in the standings and beat the Patriots in Week 2.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, are backed into a corner. They have a soft second-half schedule, but they can afford to lose only one more game and maintain reasonable hope for the playoffs because 9-7 might not cut it this year.
"You win this game today, it's a different story," Dolphins guard Justin Smiley said. "Now, there's no room for error. Plus, we're going to have to have some help, too, even if we win out.
"I just know it puts us behind the 8-ball. We've got to start winning some football games and, obviously, some things have to happen [in other games]."
The Patriots have a nasty schedule ahead. Their next four games include the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints on the road and rematches with the Jets and Dolphins. But the Patriots have put themselves in an enviable position. If they go .500 the rest of the way, they will finish with double-digits wins.
"This is when good football teams are going to be playing at their best, this time of year," Patriots guard Logan Mankins said. "If you look at our schedule, we got a lot of good teams coming up. A lot of tough games. We've got to play good football."
Nothing we've seen from the Patriots over the past month would defy the notion they're coming together. A bad second half at Mile High Stadium in Week 5 has kept them from engineering a six-game win streak.
On Sunday, they put away a desperate team that bellowed smoke and flashed mirrors.
The Patriots mostly contained the Dolphins' cunning Wildcat offense, adjusted to rookie quarterback Pat White's option skills after being knocked on their heels and neutralized the Dolphins' pass rush three days after Joey Porter denigrated the Patriots' championships and accused the NFL of pampering Tom Brady.
The Dolphins scored both of their touchdowns in unorthodox ways. White flipped an option to Ricky Williams for a 15-yard score. Running back Ronnie Brown threw a 2-yard pass to tight end Joey Haynos for the other touchdown, but only after the Patriots, facing first-and-goal from their own 2, stuffed two Wildcat runs.
Although the Patriots kicked more field goals than they would have preferred, Brady was in control behind a banged up offensive line.
Once Moss' quick strike and a two-point conversion put the Patriots ahead, Brady took command of time and space, running down the clock and maintaining field position.
Brady completed 25 of 37 passes for 332 yards, one touchdown and one interception, a great catch by Davis on a deep ball to snuff the Patriots' opening possession.
"That's why these guys got a lot of banners out there," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said of the Patriots. "They figure out how to win these close games."