Sunday put a disappointing cap on a disappointing six-game stretch for the New England Patriots. The Patriots finished the regular season with a 20-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, giving them a record of 12-4 on the 2015 season but a 2-4 finish in the final six games. By definition, the Patriots are limping into the playoffs — with their preponderance of injuries and with their poor record to close the season — but this wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to the Patriots. They are still one of the two best teams in the conference and they will still be one of the favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. Here are some of the other takeaways from Sunday’s game.
1. Winning was not the primary goal: Make no mistake: A run-focused game plan is not a bad idea against a Dolphins defense that ranked 30th overall against the rush headed into Week 17. Tom Brady had just five pass attempts in the first half, and the Patriots had 21 rush attempts. All but one of their first-half touches on offense were by running backs.
The game plan changed a bit in the second half, and Brady finished 12-of-21 passing (57.1 percent) for 134 yards (6.4 yards per pass attempt) on the day. The Patriots’ running backs finished with 26 carries carries for 70 yards on the day, and 31 of the 58 total touches.
2. The most important guy didn’t get injured: Finally, there’s no big injury to report. It almost wasn’t that way. Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh rolled up Brady at the legs in the second quarter, resulting in a right leg injury which was evaluated by the staff. Brady didn’t miss any time in the game, but he was under duress at times on Sunday and he took a few big hits as well. For all the injuries the Patriots have suffered, Brady was one that the Patriots absolutely could not overcome. That’s why you heard the sound of a collective sigh of relief across all of New England when Brady returned to the huddle.
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PHOTOS: Patriots vs. Dolphins
3. Patriots running game is close to nonexistent: Honestly, can you blame them? The Patriots have been ravaged by injuries this season at running back, with their top two runners — Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount — both on injured reserve. The Patriots signed Steven Jackson to the roster two weeks ago, and they still have James White and Brandon Bolden in the backfield, but that stable has not been productive over the past two weeks. On Sunday against the Dolphins, the Patriots rushed 26 times for 71 yards (not including a Brady kneel down at the end of the first half). The Patriots struggles were certainly understandable last week against the New York Jets, who boast the league’s best run defense. Against the Dolphins, though, the Patriots should have been able to move the ball a bit more effectively on the ground.
4. New third-down woes: All of a sudden, the Patriots can’t seem to convert third-down situations. On Sunday against the Dolphins, New England converted just four of its 14 third-down attempts. Last week against the Jets, the Patriots converted just one of their 10 third-down tries. That’s 5 of 25 over the past two weeks. Why is it happening? Primarily, it’s because of the running game. Their inability to run the ball on first down has put the team in less-than-favorable third-down situations, forcing the Patriots to convert long yards to keep the offense moving. That’s why you get the results you get: 20 plays in the second half, 32 yards for the Patriots’ offense.
5. Scoreboard watching: As the game came to a close, the Patriots turned into San Diego Chargers fans for the rest of the day. New England’s chances of clinching the No. 1 seed hinge on the Chargers beating the Denver Broncos on Sunday evening. The Patriots were unable to close the deal on their own, so now they need to hope that the Chargers can do the job New England couldn’t do over the past two weeks: win.