Twenty-four thoughts on the Patriots’ 27-24 loss to the Dolphins . . .
1. So much for the hope that the Patriots’ offense solved its problems last week against the Bills. So much for the certainty that the defense will pick up the slack when the offense is struggling. So much for any hope that the Patriots would play their best football heading into the postseason. So much for Stephon Gilmore’s case as the front-runner for defensive player of the year. So much for securing a first-round bye for the 10th straight season, getting a much-needed respite next weekend, and making things as easy as possible for themselves going forward.
2. The Patriots lost to Brian Flores and the four-win Dolphins on Sunday when Matt Gesicki caught a 5-yard TD pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick with 24 seconds left. But what was lost was more than a football game. With the defeat and the Chiefs’ win over the Chargers, Kansas City slipped into the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff seeding. The Patriots’ quest to reach a fourth straight Super Bowl, win a third in four years, second straight, and seventh overall now faces a far greater degree of difficulty, all because they got outplayed by a team that had nothing meaningful to play for beyond pride.
3. Bill Belichick said it during his grumbled postgame comments: The Patriots didn’t deserve to win. They nearly did anyway, with the Patriots taking their first lead of the game on a 13-yard touchdown reception by James White with 3 minutes 53 seconds left. But the defense — which set the franchise record for fewest points allowed in a season — couldn’t get a stop when it needed one. Miami went 75 yards on 13 plays for the winning TD, with Ryan Fitzpatrick (28 of 41, 320 yards, 1 TD) finishing with the numbers expected from Brady in this game.
4. In context of history, the loss is even more astonishing. Brady was 15-1 vs. the Dolphins at home in his career. The Dolphins hadn’t won at Gillette Stadium since 2008. The Patriots embarrassed this team, 43-0, in Week 2, and while Flores has done a remarkable job building a program, this is a team the Patriots should have defeated with relative ease. Instead it stands with the half-hearted effort in the 2015 finale against the Dolphins — a 20-10 loss that cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs — as the most frustrating conclusion to the regular season in years.
5. The most frustrating loss of the season brought one moment that was among the season’s biggest joys. The Patriots tied the score at 17 in the third quarter when Brady hit Elandon Roberts for a 38-yard catch and run. Roberts, of course, is a linebacker moonlighting at fullback due to attrition at the position, and he’s been darned good at it, hitting you-know-whats in the face to open holes for a rejuvenated Sony Michel.
6. But who knew he could catch? He might be last among the Patriots linebackers if you were asked which one was most likely to catch a football cleanly. But he did just that on a high Brady throw after getting wide-open in the flat, plucking the ball with his hands and taking it all the way for the score. It was probably the Patriots’ most enjoyably unexpected play since lineman Dan Connolly returned a kick 71 yards against the Packers in 2010.
7. Roberts’s celebration was a riot, too, with fellow linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley, and Dont’a Hightower greeting him with chest bumps and high-fives as he headed to the sideline. I think we all figured that it would be Roberts that caught the touchdown pass that put Tom Brady ahead of Peyton Manning on the all-time list, with 540.
8. Brady has thrown eight interceptions this year. The worst of them until Sunday was when he found Bills cornerback Micah Hyde wide-open in the end zone in Week 4. But the one he threw Sunday in the second quarter was worse — his worst in a long time, really — even though it didn’t come in the red zone. I’d say it was inexplicable, but I don’t know if we actually want the answer as to why it happened.
9. With Michel and Julian Edelman in the same vicinity, Brady floated a pass beyond Michel and in Edelman’s direction. It was unclear which receiver the ball was intended for — Brady didn’t clear it up postgame — but that didn’t matter much to ex-Patriot Eric Rowe, who jumped in front of Edelman, picked it off in stride, and happily ran 35 yards for the score.
10. Though he’s probably best remembered around here for being one the Patriots defensive backs that got picked apart while Malcolm Butler watched from the sideline in Super Bowl LII, Rowe was a decent player during his time with the Patriots, especially when he was called up to defend bigger receivers. But he’s also the kind of cornerback Brady at his best would expose, over and over.
11. There’s no other way to put it: Brady was brutal for much of the game. He missed an open Phillip Dorsett on a first-quarter throw that would have been a decent gain. On the drive after the interception, he overthrew an open Mohamed Sanu on third down. Through the Patriots’ first four possessions, Brady was 4 of 11 for 42 yards and a pick-six. He finished 16 of 29 for 221 yards with two touchdowns and a terrible interception. It’s not that he didn’t have his fastball Sunday. He didn’t have anything in his repertoire.
12. I don’t know what to make of Brady’s performance. He was wild high and inaccurate for most of the game. But he wasn’t on the injury report all week — something Belichick noted in his postgame press conference — and Brady himself said he was fine afterward. You almost have to hope he is dealing with a short-term injury at this point, because the alternative — his skills have eroded at age 42 — is worse. Last week’s performance was supposed to offer hope, but right now it looks like the aberration.
13. The Patriots did salvage things somewhat before halftime, scoring 10 points in 3:46 after spotting the Dolphins a 10-0 lead. Nick Folk salvaged one sputtered drive — the one in which Brady missed Sanu on third down — with a 25-yard field goal to cut it to 10-3. After a Miami punt, the Patriots finally figured out a way to get into the end zone, with Michel punctuating a 5-play, 82-yard drive with a 4-yard TD run behind fullback extraordinaire Roberts.
14. Still, the first half ended on a bewildering note by the Patriots. With 1 minute 50 seconds left in the half and the Dolphins facing third and 10, Patrick Laird carried for no gain. With all of their timeouts remaining, it seemed like a decent chance for the Patriots to stop the clock and try to score once more before the break, to keep the momentum going.
15. But Belichick let the clock run down rather than call a timeout and the Patriots got the ball back with just 57 seconds left at their 25. The Patriots ran twice to run out the clock rather than trying to score. Easy to joke that Belichick just wanted to get the half over so he could yell at them and make some adjustments but Belichick often blanches when he’s asked about halftime adjustments, replying that he makes them as the game is being played.
16. I suppose it could have been taken as a lack of faith in his offense. But given that they just scored 10 points in a short time, going passive at a point in which so much was at stake and his team still didn’t have a lead didn’t make sense. Belichick said afterward that had they picked up a first down they would have pushed it, but that doesn’t explain letting 45 seconds expire before getting the ball back. That was not the time to finally do what John Madden suggested at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI.
17. The Dolphins made it clear early that they would empty their playbook. Their first possession ended on a fourth-and-3 fake punt in which Matt Haack heaved a deep ball to nowhere and no one. That play was so poorly designed you wondered if Chuck Pagano had invented it. Then, on their second possession, Isaiah Ford ran for 11 yards after abandoning a flea flicker. Receiver Albert Wilson also got a couple of passing attempts in the second half.
18. I thought DeVante Parker might be one of those good-stats-on-a-bad-team guys — someone has to catch the ball, right? — but he’s legitimately excellent, and he ate Gilmore alive Sunday. Parker, who came in with nine touchdowns and more than 1,000 receiving yards, caught three passes for 67 yards in the first half, winning his share of battles, then was essential on the winning drive, with a 24-yard catch being the biggest play. Pretty good for a guy that had no catches on seven targets in the first meeting.
19. Saw this link on the NFL.com home page while doing some pregame reading: “Brooks: There’s Only One Choice for Defense POY.’’ Written by analyst and former NFL receiver Bucky Brooks, I figured it would mention a certain cornerback who has anchored the NFL’s best defense all season. It was someone else familiar.
20. It was ex-Patriot Chandler Jones, who entered Sunday with 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles this year for the Arizona Cardinals. I didn’t know Jones had those numbers. Pretty impressive. I don’t know if Gilmore’s struggles Sunday will cost him that award. But it was a bad time to have his worst game of the season.
21. Jamie Collins collected his first sack since Week 8 against the Browns, and it was a relatively big one at the time, taking the Dolphins out of field goal range in the final minute of the third quarter. The Patriots are going to need his first-half form in the postseason.
22. Before his touchdown, White was an afterthought in the offense, not even getting a target until he had a 12-yard reception with 7 minutes 30 seconds left in the third quarter. They forget about that guy way too much.
23. Another odd decision from Sunday: The Patriots ran the ball just 27 times despite averaging 5 yards per carry. Michel was solid again, with 18 carries for 74 yards, while Rex Burkhead had six carries for 48.
24. Bill Belichick is now 12-12 against his former assistants. I’m not sure what that means, but I know this: Flores has done a heck of a job with the Dolphins, who finished with five wins in their final nine games — just like the Patriots.