5 takeaways from one of the most baffling losses of Bill Belichick’s tenure as Patriots head coach

Why was Gronk on the field?

Bill Belichick
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures from the sidelines during the first half against the Miami Dolphins. –AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from one of the most baffling losses of Bill Belichick’s tenure as Patriots head coach, a 34-33 defeat to the Dolphins that delayed New England’s coronation in the AFC East and likely cost it any chance of home-field advantage in the conference playoffs…

Why was Gronk on the field?

To reset the details of the game’s final play: The Dolphins trailed by five points. There were seven seconds on the clock, and Miami had no timeouts. The ball was at the New England 31 yard line. And Rob Gronkowski was on the field as the Patriots’ deep safety.

Given the first four of those details, there was no reason the fifth should have been true.

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None, whatsoever.

Gronk has been the Patriots’ last line in desperation situations for years, and Randy Moss was in the role before him. It makes sense; a big, tall, athletic leaper with excellent ball skills is well-equipped to help break up a Hail Mary heave that’s floated toward the end zone.

Thing is, that was never going to happen on the snap that became the Dolphins’ final offensive play on Sunday.

Ryan Tannehill can’t throw the ball 70 yards in the air, so Miami either needed to throw a short, quick pass to the sideline to gain a few yards before trying the long bomb — or it needed to try a series of laterals and hope for a Stanford-band sort of miracle. Either way, the Patriots began that play knowing they would need to make tackle unless Miami’s ball carrier willfully ran out of bounds.

Yet Bill Belichick, Brian Flores and whoever else allowed it to happen sent their defense onto the field with 10 defenders and a tight end. They willingly gave up a potential tackler to defend against the possibility — nay, impossibility — that Tannehill was capable of reaching the end zone from that far away.

“Every time we practice it it’s for a Hail Mary,” Gronkowski said afterward. “But you’ve just got to be ready for anything.”

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Moments earlier, the Dolphins had wasted more than half of their remaining 16 seconds by trying to run with a squib kick, and in the process traded eight seconds for 16 yards of field position. It was just the type of poor, situational-football choice Patriots fans have spent the past 17 years mocking other teams for making.

Rarely — if ever — has their own team followed it up with an even more inexcusable decision.

Never should’ve been that close

The Patriots were one play away from being 10-3, and the play that left them at 9-4 is one that’ll be remembered — and replayed — for years to come. So obviously that’s where the blame starts. But the Patriots never should’ve been in that position.

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Even though New England scored 27 points before the half, they didn’t add to that until the fourth quarter, and left a bunch of points on the field before needing a pair of field goals in the final period just to retake the lead late.

Early on, Stephon Gilmore let slip through his fingers an interception that would’ve most likely been returned for a touchdown. Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point after New England’s dominant opening drive, then missed a typically makeable 42-yard field goal in the third quarter. On top of that, Brady missed a wide open Chris Hogan with a bad throw to the back of the end zone just before halftime, then the quarterback took an inexcusable sack that allowed time to expire before the Pats could try a Gostkowski chip shot.

Considering all of that, the Patriots gave away anywhere from seven to 18 points that were directly in front of them.
Give the Dolphins credit for hanging in, for their role in keeping the Patriots to three touchdowns on six trips to the red zone, and for converting on the game’s final play. But when a team piles up 28 first downs, 421 yards of offense, keeps the ball for more than 35 minutes, doesn’t turn the ball over, and blocks two punts, it shouldn’t find itself in a position where the game comes down to one play at the end. And they most certainly shouldn’t lose.

Too many big plays

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The Dolphins began the day with only 36 offensive plays of at least 20 yards all season, and were dead last league-wide with just 27 of those threw the air. (Their nine runs of 20-plus put them in the middle of the pack.) Yet the game-winner was Miami’s seventh play of at least 21 yards on Sunday, gashing New England in what was a step-back performance for a Patriots defense that had begun to show signs of improvement.

Before the 69-yard debacle at the end, the Dolphins got a 54-yard touchdown run from old friend Brandon Bolden, runs of 36 and 24 yards from Frank Gore, and Tannehill passes of 43, 23 (a touchdown), and 21 yards. It was especially ugly early, when the Pats offense was playing well enough to lay the groundwork for a blowout, except the Pats defense was too often getting toasted for big gains.

After Bolden’s second touchdown scamper of the day, coming in the second quarter, Miami had run 18 offensive plays — and was averaging 12.5 yards per snap, despite the fact that nine of those 18 plays had been rushing attempts.

To their credit, the Patriots had given up just 139 yards of offense over the first 29 minutes of the second half, held the Dolphins to 1-for-7 on third-down conversion tries over the course of the game, and recorded five sacks. But their defense also gave up 189 yards rushing, forced only five incompletions, surrendered touchdowns on both Miami trips to the red zone, allowed 34 points despite The Fish only attempting 45 offensive plays, and in the end was responsible for perhaps the single worst play of the Belichick era.

All the positive gains of the performance that confounded the Vikings appear to have been given back.

Gronk and Edelman look like themselves

The biggest positive coming out of Sunday had to be that for the first time in a while Gronkowski (as a tight end, not a safety) and Julian Edelman looked like themselves simultaneously, and with Josh Gordon continuing to be utilized effectively there were signs of progress from a Patriots offense that’s still trying to prove itself capable of reaching its customary levels.

Gronkowski finished with eight catches (on eight targets) for 107 yards and a touchdown, taking advantage of the opportunities Miami gave him to work in space and connecting with Brady every time the ball was fired his way. The pinnacle was a pretty catch and throw to the area just inside the pylon, which accounted for Gronkowski’s score.

Edelman was the go-to man in big spots, making a couple of catches in traffic over the middle, and winding up with nine catches for 86 yards and a score that looked like a vintage connection between the quarterback and his security blanket. The Pats later went to Edelman on back-to-back throws to pick up a crucial third-down try, and after a couple weeks in which he looked hobbled at stages, he looked sharp with the exception of one drop.

With Gronkowski and Edelman operating effectively, Gordon took advantage of the space and finished with 96 receiving yards that don’t include the yardage he gained by drawing a late pass-interference penalty. Cordarelle Patterson made a pretty catch for a 37-yard touchdown strike, as well, and even with James White limited out of the backfield (it was the second time in three weeks he had two or fewer catches), Brady generally looked good in throwing for 358 yards and three TDs. Had the running game done better than 77 yards for its 30 carries, and had they not left so many points on the field, it could’ve been a banner day for the New England attack.

Meet Albert McClellan

It’s OK to admit it. When you saw that No. 59 blocked a punt for the Patriots you had to look at the name on his jersey to know who had made the play. And when you saw that name, maybe you wondered if you’d missed the news that the Patriots had re-signed Shea McLellin, the linebacker who spent a couple of seasons in Foxborough.

So Albert McClellan did his best to make sure that moving forward Pats fans are more familiar with him.

The ninth-year player built a reputation with the Ravens for being an impactful, aggressive special teams contributor, so New England brought him into the fold last month in hopes he could bring those qualities to a unit that has struggled at times this season — and that’s what they got Sunday. Twice in the first half, McClellan beat his block from the middle of the defensive line and got to Matt Haack quickly enough to practically snatch the ball right off the punter’s kicking foot.

The first set up the Patriots on the Dolphins’ 18 yard line, and five plays later an Edelman touchdown. The second should’ve helped the Patriots steal points just before halftime, as it set New England up with possession at the 15 in the final minute of the half, but the offense broke down and failed to convert.

Perhaps spooked by those two plays, Haack later shanked a punt on Miami’s first possession of the fourth quarter, allowing the Pats to take over at their own 31. New England capitalized on that advantageous field position to produce a field goal that gave them the lead, and provided a boost in a return area where the Patriots have ranked in the bottom half of the league.

Alas, even those game-turning plays were not enough on a maddening afternoon in Miami.