Five takeaways as the Patriots are officially eliminated from the playoffs, tagged by the Dolphins with an ugly, 22-12 defeat in a game Bill Belichick acknowledged his team never gave itself a chance to win…
It’s official. And mercifully, so.
For weeks, maybe months, Patriots fans — and perhaps the Patriots themselves — have tinkered with all the path permutations and twisted themselves into pretzels as they held onto the hope that this was a playoff team. That this team could put it together, ride a midseason surge, and rally to claim a place in the postseason. That this team was good enough to live up to what has been the bare-minimum expectation around here for almost two decades.
The realists long ago recognized the futility of such exercises and beliefs, but with Sunday’s loss there is no choice but for all to accept the reality: The Pats aren’t going to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and they simply aren’t good enough to deserve any other fate.
This will be billed as the end of an era, with control of the AFC East now formally transferred from Bill Belichick to the Buffalo Bills, and with the AFC postseason rolling on without the Pats. But, truthfully, the Pats’ abdication of their throne has been underway for months.
They fought early — at Seattle, at Kansas City — and, to their credit, they continued to fight often. But bad quarterback play, careless turnovers, the inability to make winning plays, and a talent-deficient roster led to a winless October that exposed so many flaws it was hard to cast it off as a slump. At various points since then those same shortcomings have shown up, leading to disappointments in Houston, in Los Angeles, then Sunday in Miami.
They managed to climb back to 6-6, and improve the math on their chances, though it’s fitting that from there they turned in two of their more disappointing performances of the year. Early, their undoing was leaving too many what-if, one-score losses on their ledger.
In the two defeats that officially eliminated them, though, they were plainly outplayed on both sides of scrimmage. They were out-executed, out-coached, out-muscled. The Rams and the Dolphins both ran the ball down their throat. Both looked like quality, playoff-caliber teams building something in December.
And both made the Patriots look like a team that’ll be in the business of rebuilding everything come January.
At least that’s now reality everyone has no choice but to accept.
An utter defensive disappointment
If the Patriots ever had a prayer of doing anything this season, its hopes of being answered were held by their defense. And in that sense it’s disappointing that when its playoff life was down to its final gasps, that group was the unit that led New England down.
After pitching a first-half shutout that made Tua Tagovailoa look like so many of the other rookie quarterbacks the Pats have embarrassed over the years, the Dolphins absolutely decimated their guests’ supposed strong suit in the second half.
There was a three-and-out included late in the third quarter, but beyond that Miami’s second-half possessions were nine plays for 72 yards; 14 plays for 90 yards; and 11 plays for 75 yards. All three ended in rushing touchdowns, all of which were part of a monstrous day in which the Dolphins racked up 250 yards on the ground.
Prior to Sunday, Miami had only once this season ran for more than 111 yards, and that came in Week 3. They were below average in every major rushing metric — and, oh, they were missing their starting running back.
Worse, they were also missing their top two receivers and their lead tight end. They were decimated in terms of personnel, with a rookie quarterback who’s still very much learning to play his position, and the Pats still couldn’t stop them in the second half.
They allowed a third-and-8 to get picked up with a standard run play. They lined up with 12 men on the field at one point while being pushed around. They almost gave up a first down via fake punt, were it not negated by a procedural penalty. Miami came in among the NFL’s worst in picking up first downs, and converting on third down, then gained 26 new sets of downs and picked up seven of 12 chances on third down.
It was ugly. And it could’ve been worse. Tagovailoa made a bad decision under duress, leading to a point-saving interception in the end zone. The Dolphins missed a makeable field goal at the end of the first half. Playing under the pressure put on them by an offense that didn’t reach the end zone, they gave up 22 points — and it could’ve been 30.
The Patriots not only needed their defense to be better, they needed their defense to carry them. And in that spot, they were woefully disappointing.
Gilmore injury is potentially a killer
The speculation has been that Stephon Gilmore has been playing his final games as a Patriot, the presumption being that the cornerback will have a desire to cash in with one year left on his contract and the Pats will see better value in trading him away than being the team that gives him top-of-market money.
When he went down late in Sunday’s second quarter, though, both the big payday and the club’s chance to capitalize on its asset might have gone away with Gilmore’s gimpy exit.
And that would be a brutal break for both sides.
The extent of the injury remains to be seen, and maybe there was reason for optimism in the fact Gilmore was initially deemed “doubtful” to return, rather than out for the remainder of Sunday’s game. Some other early indications suggested the injury might not be major. But it didn’t look good. Reacting to a receiver’s cut, he tried to plant with his left foot, but it slipped on the sod. As it did, his right leg apparently couldn’t handle the weight shift, and he clutched at the back of his knee.
With such non-contact injuries can carry, the fear is major ligament damage and reconstruction that would require a year-long recovery. By then, Gilmore will be 31 years old, and too far removed from his 2019 defensive player of the year campaign to turn that honor into tens of millions of new dollars.
Likewise, it would sap the Patriots of their shot to trade him this spring. Any team that would’ve been interested in acquiring Gilmore will now just wait for his contract to run out — and until they can evaluate his health sufficiently enough to be confident in signing him.
Of course, there’s also a chance that Gilmore’s injury isn’t major. He missed time earlier this season with a knee injury, but returned to play effectively. Maybe Sunday’s scare will simply cost him the final couple games of a campaign that wasn’t going anywhere, anyway.
The alternative, however, would mark the worst-case scenario on what the Pats had to be hoping would be an inconsequential visit to Miami.
J.C. Jackson’s pick … and predicament
The Gilmore situation could also have major ramifications with the way the Patriots approach contract negotiations with J.C. Jackson, the cornerback who notched his eighth interception of the season on Sunday.
Jackson is slated to be a restricted free agent after this season, which means he’ll be eligible to receive contract offers from other teams, but the Patriots will be able to match or recoup some level of compensation, depending upon how New England decides to tag him. The Pats could also pursue a long-term deal with Jackson, who Sunday became the first Patriot with eight picks in a season since Asante Samuel snagged 10 in 2006.
His latest was the result of pressure created by Chase Winovich and a bad decision by Tagovailoa, but, still, it further affirmed Jackson’s reputation as a ball-hawking defender. He just turned 25 last month, and he has continually improved since making the club as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He was a huge factor in the Pats’ Super Bowl run that season, and this year his importance has been reflected in the fact he entered this week having played more defensive snaps than any Patriot but Devin McCourty.
He has earned a role as the Pats’ No. 2 corner — but are they ready to install him as their No. 1? And, if Gilmore’s injury is future-altering, does that speed up the process of making that determination? What effect does that have on the Pats’ approach to negotiations? And what leverage might it give Jackson?
The questions continue from there, which is a credit to the way Jackson has played himself into this opportunity. And the way the Patriots’ age elsewhere in the defensive secondary makes all the more crucial to answer correctly.
On a curve, a passing grade for Newton
The bar has been so substantially lowered — after three straight weeks in which they failed to eclipse 300 yards — that Sunday’s first three and a half quarters felt like a step forward for the Patriots offense, and particularly its passing game.
They hadn’t scored a touchdown. They’d thrown for just 150 yards. And Cam Newton had only two more completions than misses on his 22 throws. But it felt like progress because it felt functional, finally, and because although they struggled to finish drives they did appear to get better as the game went on.
Early, it looked like Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer (10 seasons) and head coach Brian Flores (eight seasons) had effectively used their experience on the same staff as Pats’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and knew exactly what to expect from New England. Screen passes, by nature designed to be deceptive, had no chance. There was no surprises in the run game. And defenders were jumping into passing lanes with precise anticipation.
At one point, ex-Pat Kyle Van Noy peeled back from his zone and got his hands on one of Newton’s passes. He nearly picked it, and that proved fortunate for the Pats because had he not deflected it, cornerback Xavien Howard was behind him, waiting to steal possession and return it to paydirt.
A bit later, Howard did get to the end zone — but again Newton got lucky, because his fumble was ruled out of bounds because it glanced the leg of a defender who’d just crashed onto the sideline. Newton could’ve easily accounted for a couple of turnovers early, a game after having one of his interceptions returned for a score in Los Angeles. Instead, thanks to the quarterback’s good fortune, the Pats went to the half ahead, 6-0.
From there, Newton actually improved. For the first time in a while, he tossed it down the field, and made connections with his receivers, especially over the middle. (Jakobi Meyers’ 111-yard afternoon speaks to that notion. So does the fact three different Pats had catches of 20-plus.)
He still wasn’t good enough, missing on throws to N’Keal Harry and Dalton Keene that could’ve been big plays, as well as a potential touchdown to Meyers, and still not giving New England a legitimate aerial weapon when they started chasing. But it looked better than it had in at least a month.
Grading it on a curve, it was passable. And (assuming Cam’s still Belichick’s quarterback) that’s progress.
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