Bill Belichick

4 takeaways as Patriots limp into playoffs following latest Miami loss

The Patriots who took the field against the Dolphins in Week 18 would have a hard time beating either the Bengals or Bills on Wildcard Weekend.

Patriots Dolphins
Tua Tagovailoa escapes pressure from Christian Barmore and Joejuan Williams for a clutch first-down run. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Thank goodness the Patriots didn’t play the Dolphins with anything meaningful on the line this week. Because for whatever reason, Hard Rock Stadium just brings out the worst in Bill Belichick’s crew.

New England’s latest road loss to the Dolphins extends their winless streak in Miami to five years, with former Patriots coach Brian Flores and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa also earning their first season sweep of New England in more than 20 years.

But beyond that, the Patriots failed to take advantage of an important opportunity ahead of the wild-card round next week. That’s not a reference to seeding: even if they had won, they wouldn’t have moved higher than the fifth seed due to wins by Buffalo, Kansas City, and Tennessee this weekend.

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Their sloppy play cost them a chance to start the playoffs with some momentum, raising questions as to how they’ll fare on the road against the Bengals or Bills in their playoff opener.

The Patriots ‘complementary football’ was nowhere to be found.

That seven-game win streak feels like forever ago now.

Since that once-in-a-generation win over Buffalo, the Patriots have closed the season 1-3 with their only win coming against the 3-14 Jaguars.

In those defeats, the Colts, Bills, and Dolphins have pounced on New England’s mistakes and have ground out clutch plays against a resilient but not-so-dominant Patriots defense.

Mac Jones’s tendency to zero in on Jakobi Meyers in third-down situations is common knowledge as evidenced by Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard freelancing a bit on his Cover 2 zone assignment to jump Jones’s first pass attempt and return it for a touchdown.

The rookie did take advantage of some deep holes down the field with 25-plus-yard completions to Meyers (twice) and Hunter Henry that showed off a good combination of aggressiveness and accuracy. But he’s not looking like a guy who can lead a team to a playoff win at the moment.

The Patriots committed eight penalties for 78 yards and gifted Miami four extra first downs. One of them, a special teams flag on Lawrence Guy for illegally covering the long snapper on a Miami punt, led to three Dolphins points that may have cost New England the game.

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But New England’s lack of discipline on defense hurt them just as bad as anything else. They repeatedly allowed Dolphins running back Duke Johnson to bounce runs outside and let Tua Tagovailoa, who didn’t throw the football well, break contain with clutch scrambles on Miami’s final two drives.

Long story short: the Patriots didn’t look like a playoff team in Week 18, and that’s unfortunately been the case in three of their last four games. They have a lot of re-discovery to do before next week if they intend to win a playoff game. As of right now, it’s hard to see that happening.

Injuries mount at the worst possible time.

Things already didn’t look great when Dont’a Hightower (knee) and Kyle Dugger (hand) had to miss Sunday’s action. Their absence might just be for maintenance purposes, but they’re ominous given the Patriots’ struggles against Miami’s ground game in particular.

The situation got even worse as the game progressed.

Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn had to leave the game with an ankle injury, forcing Justin Herron into the game.

Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson also got banged up and had to miss snaps during the game, though both finished the contest. Fortunately, Brandon Bolden had his best game of the season while picking up the slack for them.

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Possibly most troubling of all, though, was Christian Barmore suffering a leg injury as he tried to stop Tua Tagovailoa’s back-breaking scramble late in the fourth quarter. He reportedly couldn’t put weight on the leg and sounds like he’s in danger of missing the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss.

Aside from winning the game, New England’s No. 1 goal was to head into the playoffs as healthy as possible. That certainly didn’t happen Sunday.

Matthew Judon has fallen off.

Coming out of the Patriots’ bye week, Judon was right up there with J.C. Jackson as the Patriots’ most dominant defensive player.

Since then, he’s been troublingly ordinary.

The star edge defender had registered just two pressures since that Week 13 game in Buffalo going into the season finale and didn’t do much to break out of that slump against Miami.

On top of that, Judon landed in the spotlight twice for the wrong reasons, gifting the Dolphins a first down with a late hit on Tua Tagovailoa and then being the last man on the line of scrimmage as Johnson ran off-tackle for a 27-yard run on the first Miami snap of the second half.

The Patriots pulled a frustrated Judon off the field after both plays. Perhaps that’s fine in the end since it spared the dynamic pass-rusher from potential injury. But the fact that one of New England’s best players quite obviously did more harm than good in this game isn’t a good omen.

The Patriots should hope for the Bengals next week.

On one hand, things could be much, much worse for the Patriots. The Colts’ stunning loss to the Jaguars ensured New England won’t have to play Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Round 1. That might’ve been an almost sure ticket home.

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However, neither the Bengals nor Bills would be a pushover.

Cincinnati boasts the fifth-ranked scoring offense in football and has one of the scariest skill groups in the league, including likely Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd at receiver, Joe Mixon at running back and a surging Joe Burrow slinging the rock.

And the Bills? The Patriots might know just about everything there is to know about their division rivals, but that didn’t stop Buffalo from soundly beating New England at home when the teams weren’t playing in a snow globe. When it came down to it, Josh Allen was simply too good to contain.

The one advantage Belichick’s crew might have against the Bengals? They’re young. Burrow is just a second-year player, and the wily Patriots coach’s defenses often cause problems even for the most talented passers early in their careers. As much star power as the Bengals boast offensively, they might be able to frustrate Burrow into some mistakes.

Those odds seem better than trying to go up against the back-to-back AFC East Champion Bills, who have now won three out of the last four meetings between the two teams. If it does end up being Patriots v. Bills III, Belichick had better put on his wizard hat and call down the biggest storm he can muster. That might be New England’s only shot to win.

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