5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins

Tom Brady
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sits on the bench during the end of the second half of New England's 27-20 loss to the Dolphins. AP


Five takeaways from the Patriots’ lethargic, 27-20 loss to the Dolphins that delayed another AFC East crown while depleting any wiggle room in the tussle for the top of the conference standings…


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When Rob Gronkowski was suspended for last week’s late hit against the Bills, some cast it as a good thing for the Patriots – figuring New England didn’t need its star tight end to beat Miami, and in the end it would merely serve to give his big body a week of rest. But a historically bad performance proved just how much the Pats missed No. 87.


Despite 11 tries, New England failed to convert a third down for the first time since September of 1991, when Tom Brady was 14 years old, and when Dick MacPherson’s squad was scoring an average of 13.2 points per game on the path to a 6-10 record. As a result, the Patriots went three-and-out on six possessions, were constantly fighting against field position, and saw their defense spend more than 36 minutes on the field.

It was unfamiliar territory for a team that entered Monday Night Football as the AFC’s best team on third down, having converted almost 45 percent of its opportunities this season, and having entered the weekend have piled up more first downs than any team in football.

There is a multitude of reasons for those numbers, of course, but Monday night’s loss made the case that none is more important than Gronkowski, who through 13 weeks ranked sixth in the conference with 16 third-down converting catches this season. That was three more than any other Patriot, and it wasn’t only in those go-to spots where the Patriots missed him. Without their top tight end, the Pats needed Dwayne Allen to be more a threat in the passing game, and that took blocking help away from an offensive line starting their third-stringer at right tackle.


Brady wound up under pressure all night, sacked twice, hit six times, and rushed into throws on a regular basis. That kept the Patriots from ever developing a rhythm, and from getting their receivers meaningfully involved. Their receivers didn’t make a catch until Danny Amendola snagged a pass early in the third quarter, and Brandin Cooks’ only connection on seven targets came late in the fourth. Chris Hogan, meanwhile, made one catch for one yard in his return from an arm injury.

Gronkowski gets his chance to return next week. And now it’s clear how badly the Patriots need him.


It’s probably not wise when facing a team for the second time in 16 days to expect the same gameplan to be as effective. But the difference between the Patriots’ offensive approach Monday night, and the team’s attack plan in Foxborough on Nov. 26 was particularly jarring.

In their 35-17 win, the Patriots rushed 38 times for 196 yards, counteracting the Dolphins’ talented defensive front by keeping the ball on the ground for nearly 58 percent of their offensive snaps. They were slightly more pass-heavy in the first half that day, but New England’s 14 first-half runs had resulted in 99 yards and one of the scores that built a 21-10 halftime lead. Monday the ground game wasn’t as productive early, producing 28 yards on eight carries before intermission – but from there the Pats basically gave up on that alternative.


Brady blamed New England’s departure from the running game on the scoreboard, saying the Patriots’ playcalling was limited by falling behind early.  However, the Patriots actually led briefly during the second quarter, and trailed by just a field goal when taking the ball to start the third. That’s not a deficit that would force a team to abandon the run. Neither is 20-10, which it became after Miami’s first drive of the second half. Yet Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead each had only one carry after the break, while Brady was forced to brave the onslaught while putting it in the air 27 times – one fewer than he did during the entire game two weeks earlier.

In the earlier tilt, Brady completed six passes to Cooks, those and his 83 yards both team highs. Gronkowski (five for 82 yards) was the only other Patriots’ target to make more than one catch in the game. But, Monday, Miami caught more tosses intended for Cooks than the receiver did himself, his line showing one catch while the Dolphins came away with a couple of interceptions.
Give cornerback Xavien Howard and the Dolphins’ defense credit for making the right adjustments. At the same time, it seems fair to blame the Patriots for making the wrong ones.


As much as the Patriots offense missed Gronkowski, the absences of Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy were nearly as detrimental to a defense that surrendered more than 17 points for the first time since Oct. 1 while playing without those two key figures in its front seven.


Flowers missed his second straight game, though this time the Patriots didn’t do nearly as well to cover for their most disruptive pass rusher. New England hit Miami quarterback Jay Cutler just twice all game, and one of those came when safety Devin McCourty came blitzing to pick up his third career sack. With the line unable to get much of a push into the backfield, the Pats were left to blitz defensive backs several times in an effort to disrupt Cutler.

Van Noy’s contributions can sometimes be overlooked, but New England missed him in the middle of the linebacking corps, where Elandon Roberts had issues in coverage and missed a few tackles. He continues to look like a capable contributor in the right role, but as a second-year player the breakdowns still happen frequently enough to suggest his role, right now, should not be that of a prominent, central, every-down linebacker.
Add those defensive injuries to the continued absence of Marcus Cannon at right tackle on the offensive line, and struggles like Mondays are evidence that the Patriots could prove particularly vulnerable if there personnel at the top of the depth chart isn’t available come January.


Although the Patriots were the team with the chance to clinch a division title, the Dolphins appeared from the start to be the team with better energy and greater motivation – exposing a New England club that looked to be playing without an edge and was made to pay for it.


During the broadcast, Sean McDonough shared the insight that in Bill Belichick’s meeting with the ESPN crew on Sunday the coach seemed to be “scared” that his Patriots would enter the game thinking it was going to be easy. And that fear manifested itself Monday night. It looked at times as though they expected to come into Hard Rock Stadium on the heels of 14 straight road wins, of eight consecutive wins overall, off an 18-point win over this same team in a game they didn’t even play all that well, and things would merely come together.

The mindset appeared to be far closer to dull than sharp, and it infected every area of play. The Pats’ tackling was as bad as it has been in months, costing Jordan Richards what would’ve been a points-saving sack on Cutler in the second quarter, and enabling Kenyan Drake to compile 193 yards from scrimmage. Offensively there was the sluggishness that resulted in not only 0-for-11 on third down, but also 248 total yards – which was 125 fewer than the Pats’ previous season-low. There were nine penalties, a lack of impact in the kicking game, and in the final minute an onside kick that never really had a chance.

It wasn’t until safety Duron Harmon gave his defense a tongue lashing on the sidelines during the fourth quarter that the Patriots showed any real signs of engagement – but by then it was already clear that the hats and T-shirts would be staying boxed up for at least another week.



The good news for the Patriots is that Monday night’s loss might not mean anything. In terms of the division, they still hold a three-game lead over the Bills with three games to play. The East title still appears its annual inevitability.

And in the scope of the top of the conference, the Pats still go to Pittsburgh for next Sunday’s showdown controlling their own destiny. For the moment, the Steelers (11-2) are a game ahead of the Patriots (10-3) for the No. 1 seed, though the winner of their head-to-head meeting will hold the tiebreaker. That means that if the Patriots win out, they will enter the playoffs holding home-field advantage.

The biggest consequence for New England is that its margin for error has been minimalized. Had the Patriots beat the Dolphins, then gone on to beat the Steelers, they could’ve survived a hiccup against either the Bills or Jets in the final two weeks. Now, the Pats either need to go 3-0, or hope that, after losing to New England, Pittsburgh trips up once more against either a Houston team (that’s lost six of seven) or the winless Browns. Neither of those is likely.

If the Steelers beat the Patriots next week, the AFC will run through Pittsburgh, and the focus of scoreboard watchers in New England will turn to Jacksonville – as the Jaguars are currently just a game behind the Patriots for the conference’s second seed, and second bye. Before looking ahead, though, it may be heartening for Patriots fans to look back. Specifically, back to 2010, when the Pats looked lifeless in a brutal loss to a bad Browns team, but the very next week went to Pittsburgh and pounded the Steelers.