MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- It worked so well until it didn't.
Fall behind, lull your opponent into a false sense of advantage, and then pull off the miraculous comeback. The Patriots were playing dangerously, taking each and every game down to the final series, or final defensive stand, and coming away victorious, week after week. Three weeks in a row, to be exact.
They were the cardiac kids. But Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Dolphins is a simple reminder that the calls and the plays don't always go in their favor, and living dangerously has a predictable underside upon each coin flip.
Here's our takeaways from Sunday's loss.
1. No Gronk? We'll take extra doses of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola -- Because of Rob Gronkowski's injury, we wanted to see how the Patriots were going to distribute the ball. It turns out, as expected, we'll see more targets for Edelman and Amendola. Between the two, Brady eyed his top wide receivers for 33 of his 55 pass attempts, completing 23 of those targets. It couldn't have been more apparent in the fourth quarter when Brady went to them 21 times.
What was surprising was the relatively small amount of touches for running back Shane Vereen. He caught three passes on seven targets, managing only 8 yards. He was practically invisible. At least that's how the Dolphins made him look.
Josh Boyce, who has filled in Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, was targeted seven times. But he was benched in the fourth quarter in favor of Austin Collie after failing to come up with a couple of tough catches. So long as two of the team's top X receivers are out of commission, they're going to be missing a pivotal element to their offense.
2. Are the injuries catching up with the Patriots? -- The lack of Gronkowski's presence is felt most dearly in the red zone, where the big tight end attracted an array of defenders and opened things up for others. The Patriots were 1 for 4 in the red zone, reminding us of their woes prior to Week 7 season when he returned from back and forearm rehab. But he's not the only injury affecting this team. For the second straight week, with no Dobson or Thompkins, the Patriots were forced to utilize Boyce, who appears talented but unseasoned. Left tackle Nate Solder suffered a head injury, likely a concussion, and didn't finish the game. His loss shifted Logan Mankins from his normal left guard duties to left tackle. Josh Kline played in Mankins' place. And then there are defensive backs Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington, who haven't looked right in weeks. All three have been listed on the injury report as questionable with different ailments. They each had trouble against the Dolphins' trio of receivers, Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Rishard Matthews. You can't help but think that individually, each injury can be overlooked, but altogether it paints a picture of a team that's hanging by a thread as the season winds down.
3. Back in the mix -- Both tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and right tackle Marcus Cannon played solid in their return after knee and ankle injuries. Hoomanawanui comes back at a pivotal moment for his position. He caught only one pass on the day, a 13-yard touchdown, on three targets. But it was a beautiful one-handed grab while fending off Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbee. He is not Gronkowski, but he is an option worthy of the few targets he receives. It also appears that with Cannon back in the lineup, there is a more vivid picture of how the Patriots view their offensive line depth. The team obviously does not feel comfortable with Will Svitek at left tackle because when Solder went down with a head injury, the Patriots opted to have Mankins move over rather than bring in the backup.
4. The state of the defense -- There are a few things of note here, not forgetting that the defense had an opportunity to shut down the Dolphins with a little more than two minutes remaining in the game. But there are positives to address. For the Patriots run defense, which had ranked 31st overall in yards allowed before Sunday's games, there was at least a modicum of relief that the team had held the Dolphins to 89 yards on the ground. This comes on the heels of allowing 108 to the Cleveland Browns, 121 to the Houston Texans, and 280 to the Denver Broncos.
Unfortunately, that's about as far as the positives go for the Patriots defense as a unit. Former practice squad player Sealver Siliga notched another sack, as did Chandler Jones and Joe Vellano, but there was no dominant effort by any individual. (Dont'a Hightower appears to have become the lead linebacker on the roster with Brandon Spikes out on obvious passing downs.)
Ryan Tannehill shredded the Patriots for 312 yards on 24 of 37 passing, including three touchdowns. So now the pass defense has become a concern. It seems, with injuries and changes week to week, the Patriots can't seem to put together an all-around defensive effort at all.
5. File this game under the category "weird" -- Special teams has been a source of strength for the Patriots, but not on Sunday. Stephen Gostkowski's missed 48-yard field goal was a shocker. He hadn't missed an attempt shorter than 50 yards out since Week 2 against the New York Jets. His last miss came against the Houston Texans from 55 yards out. And then there was the kickoff out of bounds in the fourth quarter, a timely penalty that gave the Dolphins 60 yards of field with 4:07 left in the game.
"I over kicked it and was trying to kill the ball," Gostkowski explained. "It was not a good kick at all and my timing was terrible. It was a play that I wish I could take back and it stinks to lose and have such an affect on the game."
Afterward, Tannehill marched the Dolphins down field before hitting Marcus Thigpen with the eventual game-winning 14-yard touchdown with 1:21 left.
You can safely call the coupling of those two special teams snafus abnormal. Much like you can call Kyle Arrington's 4-yard sack on Tannehill abnormal. It was the first of his career. Oh, and Michael Thomas, who intercepted Brady with two seconds remaining in the game, had just been signed to the team's 53-man roster off the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad on Wednesday. He hadn't taken any reps in practice on defense, just on the scout team. That's abnormal.
The Patriots scored for the first time on their first drive of a game since Oct. 20, the team's second meeting with the Jets. Apparently slow starts were starting to become normal.
And, lastly, Mankins's move to left tackle -- which was very interesting to watch -- was not the first time he had played at the position. In fact, the last time he played left tackle in the NFL, in 2011, he blew out his knee … against Miami.