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BOB RYAN

They got what they deserved in this one

MIAMI -- Oops.

OK, so the big game Jan. 23 will be in Pittsburgh, after all. I mean, that's all we really care about, isn't it?

Of course, if the Patriots don't play better than this against the Jets next Sunday, and, God forbid, against the 49ers the week after that, they'll never last long enough to see the Steelers. This is a team that got what it deserved last night.

And that was a shocking 29-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins, who scored twice after falling behind by a 28-17 score with 3:59 remaining to pull off one of the big upsets of the NFL season. The ramifications for Pittsburgh are huge: The Steelers must only split their games with Baltimore and Buffalo to ensure home field advantage in the AFC portion of the playoffs.

This was all such an abstract thought after Tom Brady hit Daniel Graham with a 2-yard touchdown pass to cap an eight-play, 65-yard drive that made it 28-17. The drive, mostly on the ground, appeared to be the ribbon on the package. It turned out to be the last positive thing the Patriots would do.

It's a good thing Brady is eternally humble, because he had a lot to be humble about last night. Yes, he threw three touchdown passes. But he also threw four interceptions, two of which could safely be classified as horrible, and the second of those could also be labeled as catastrophic, since it came with 1:45 to play and gave the Dolphins a first down at the New England 21.

The quarterback wearing the big smile after the game was the Other Guy. A.J. Feeley didn't have gaudy stats (22 for 35, 198 yards, one TD and no interceptions) but he made more than enough big plays, none bigger than the touchdown pass he lofted to Derrius Thompson on fourth and 10 with 1:29 to go. It was basically a modified fade, with Feeley lofting the ball and asking the 6-foot-2-inch wide receiver to make a play over, sad to say, Troy Brown, who, at 5-10 (maybe) just couldn't do anything to stop a bigger athlete.

"Derrius made a great catch," said Miami interim coach Jim Bates. "A great catch."

It was a fine play, all right, and it was made by a man on the team that deserved to win this game. The Patriots simply coughed this one up, first by allowing the Dolphins to respond to that 28-17 state of affairs by coming right back for a touchdown on a seven-play, 68-yard drive to keep themselves alive, and then by failing to grind out the necessary first down or two that would have safely put this one in the W category.

As for Brady, the guy was trying to make a play on third and 9 when he found himself in the grasp of the great Jason Taylor, and, instead of eating the ball, tried to make something happen by flinging it in the direction of Graham. The pass had no chance, and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo gleefully picked it off. Hey, a guy can't be a hero all the time. Brady still had a chance to create one of those Adam Vinatieri moments, but the New England night ended when Arturo Freeman intercepted a second-down pass intended for David Givens with 1:09 remaining.

This was a sticky, uncomfortable game from the start. The Patriots scored their customary first-drive TD, but gave it right back when rookie Wes Welker returned a punt 71 yards to the New England 2 to set up a tying score. That set the tone for the evening -- for both teams. The Patriots couldn't get rid of this 2-11 team, and this 2-11 team kept gaining more and more confidence. The simple truth is that the Patriots allowed the Dolphins to hang around far too long, and they wound up paying the ultimate price.

Had the Patriots won, there would have been more than enough for the mentor to kvetch about. The passing game was only occasionally effective. The defense exerted minimal pressure on Feeley. There just wasn't any real extended life. This was not a performance worthy of a championship team.

Now the Patriots have probably stirred up the Jets, who were going to be tough enough to defeat, anyway. There is blood in the water, and it will be very interesting to see how the team will react.

There are a lot of ways to look at it. You can say that the injuries in the defensive backfield finally caught up with them. You can say that they were due for an off night. You can say that Somebody Up There was taking pity on the Dolphins. But it all added up to a loss, and now we know that, barring a Pittsburgh collapse -- hah! -- the AFC Championship Game will be at Heinz Field.

That's the farthest thing from Bill Belichick's mind. We all know that. But they play, while everyone else worries and projects. That's just the way it is.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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