MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Patriots’ comeback magic ran out against the Dolphins Sunday afternoon, with Miami scoring the game-winning touchdown with 1:21 to play, then stopping New England’s last-gasp bid.
Safety Michael Thomas, signed off the 49ers practice squad a couple of weeks ago, picked off Tom Brady in the end zone on fourth down with two seconds to play, sealing a 24-20 victory for Miami.
A victory would have clinched the AFC East title and a playoff berth for the Patriots, who also could have moved into the No. 1 seed in the conference since Denver lost Thursday night and the Patriots beat the Broncos in November.
Although the Patriots moved the ball well on their last possession — they had 1:15 to play and all three timeouts when the drive began — they suffered another red-zone failure, getting to the 14-yard line before Miami clamped down.
Dolphins second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill was impressive on the game-winning drive, overcoming a second-down sack that forced a third and 16. Tannehill found Brian Hartline for an 11-yard gain, then hit tight end Charles Clay for a 6-yard catch and run on fourth and 5.
The touchdown was a 14-yard pass to Marcus Thigpen, who beat Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower in coverage.
Stephen Gostkowski gave Miami an advantage to start their winning drive when he made uncharacteristic mistake, putting his kickoff out of bounds. The penalty meant the Dolphins began at their 40-yard line.
The Patriots got off to a better start than in recent weeks, with a field goal on their first possession to take a 3-0 lead. It was the first time since Week 9 against the Steelers that the Patriots scored first.
It was also the first time they scored on their opening possession since facing the Jets in October. However, red-zone issues on that first drive would continue throughout the afternoon.
New England was 1 for 4 in the red zone, the one key area were they had shown significant improvement with Rob Gronkowski on the field. In six-plus games with Gronkowski, the Patriots recorded touchdowns on 22 of 32 red-zone opportunities (68.8 percent), but in the first six games of the season without him, they had converted just 9-of-22 opportunities (40.9 percent).
The Patriots got to the 4 when that opening drive stalled, an otherwise promising 16-play effort ending with a third-down pass to rookie Josh Boyce that was broken up by cornerback Jimmy Wilson.
The Dolphins, which came into the game in the thick of the AFC wild-card race, not only helped themselves but also prevented the Patriots from winning yet another AFC East title.
But early on, the Dolphins did not look like a team intent on making either of those things happen.
Their second possession took a hit when a solid kickoff return from Thigpen was negated by a penalty, and Miami went three and out.
Their fourth possession ended comically. Rather than going for it on fourth and 1 from the Patriots’ 24, coach Joe Philbin attempted a field goal.
Although it appeared Miami had a fake planned, long snapper John Denney snapped the ball too early, and it went off the facemask of holder/punter Brandon Fields and bounced left, where the Patriots’ Nate Ebner recovered it.
The Patriots turned the gaffe into their first touchdown, a pretty play from Brady to Michael Hoomanawanui. Brady kept the play alive in the pocket, and Hoomanawanui, who was playing for the first time since suffering a knee injury against the Panthers, made a one-handed catch in the end zone.