Stinker. Clunker. No-show. Debacle.
Call the Patriots’ 27-20 loss to the Dolphins Monday night what you want. And definitely call the final score misleading. It’s all true. It was a miserable performance by Tom Brady and the offense, and the defense, populated now with no-names and who’s-hes, was no better.
So pick your favorite adjective with a negative connotation. It probably fits. The big question heading into Sunday’s showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers is: How long will it apply?
It’s instinctive to overreact when the Patriots look bad, and the talented but habitually disinterested Dolphins, who entered with a 5-7 record and flickering playoff hopes, made them look terrible. It was jarring to watch, and yet not altogether unfamiliar. We’ve seen this before, even in seasons that end with a coda of confetti.
This doesn’t happen often to the Patriots. When it does happen, it tends to be in Miami.
Tom Brady is now 7-9 as the Patriots starting quarterback in Miami, and you almost have to revisit each one of those losses to believe the statistic is real given his overwhelming success in virtually every other venue other than perhaps Denver.
For the record, the Patriots have lost in Miami during the Brady/Bill Belichick era in 2001, ’02, ’04, ’06, ’09, ’13, ’14, ’15 and ’17. They’ve lost to Dolphins teams quarterbacked by A.J. Feeley, Joey Harrington and Chad Henne. They’ve lost to teams coached by Joe Philbin, Jim Bates, and some nobody named Nick Saban. They’ve lost at stadiums named Pro Player, Land Shark, and Sun Life Stadium.
The names of the players change. So do the names of the venues. But the ghosts of the Orange Bowl, a place where the Patriots lost 18 straight games until a victory in the AFC Championship game in the 1985 season, still seem to haunt. It’s a wonder Vern Den Herder and Kim Bokamper didn’t somehow find a way to hit Brady Monday night.
Perhaps you noticed that in three of those seasons in which the Patriots lost at Miami, they went on to win the Super Bowl. That is of course still a realistic possibility this season for the 10-3 Patriots, who will own the top seed in the AFC if they win at Pittsburgh Sunday.
But there are genuine concerns to take away from Monday’s game, at least until whenever they are assuaged. Foremost to me is the defense, which made habitually disinterested Jay Cutler look like Brady. The defense had been on an impressive run entering this matchup, having held eight straight opponents to 17 points or fewer. It’s a feat worthy of acknowledgment, but it should also be noted that they didn’t play any teams in that stretch that will be confused with the Air Coryell Chargers or the Greatest Show on Turf Rams.
Thirteen games into the season, this looks to me like a defense with a deep and talented secondary – albeit one that reverted to its early-season habit of inexplicable communication issues Monday – and a front seven that may suddenly be feeling the effects of attrition.
There was a compelling scene during the game of respected safety Duron Harmon lighting up his defensive teammates during a sideline huddle after a Miami touchdown. But what was especially eye-opening was not his motivational fury, but the names of those teammates surrounding him to hear it: Bademosi. Reilly. The lesser Flowers. Someone in a No. 91 jersey who was not Jamie Collins.
It was a stark reminder that they’ve been without several key members of the varsity. The defense has delivered plenty of hits lately. I’m starting to wonder if they’re at that tipping point where they’ve taken too many to be all that they can.
Then there’s Brady, who played Monday like someone who has taken a few too many hits himself recently, or at least was wary of absorbing more. He has redefined what a 40-year-old quarterback can be this season. Monday, he looked like what a 40-year-old quarterback is expected to be.
He moved well enough in the pocket, so I’m not that worried about the Achilles’ ache that has kept him out of a few practices lately. But his accuracy was off, and his decision-making didn’t appear to be as sharp as usual. He too often seemed to fall into chuck-it-up mode, reminiscent of the 2015 AFC Championship game loss at Denver.
The result was some truly ugly statistics and visuals. The Patriots were 0 for 11 on third down. A wide receiver did not have a reception until the third quarter. Xavien Howard had as many catches as Patriots receivers Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks, which is not great considering Howard’s job description is Dolphins cornerback.
If Brady is hurt – whether it’s his Achilles’ or some injury we won’t find out about until February – then all bets are off on their chances at a third Super Bowl victory in four years. But for now, I’m willing to write this off as a one-night-only lousy performance by a quarterback who has fewer of them than any other passer in NFL history.
After all, if we must recognize the annual trip to Miami as one that often goes haywire after kickoff, we must also note this: The Patriots are 7-1 through the years in the game after a loss at Miami. And Brady is 10-2 against the Steelers, including 5-2 on their territory.
They know how to beat even the best Pittsburgh teams. And they know how to recover after a stinker, clunker, no-show and debacle. The time to worry is when they don’t.