The Patriots got off to a slow start in Miami, falling into a 17-0 hole that they were never able to overcome as they dropped their regular-season finale to the Dolphins, 33-24. New England finishes their season 10-7 having lost three of their last four games, but will still punch their playoff ticket as they head to the Wild Card round next weekend.
It was the kind of loss that embodied most of New England's losses this season: quickly falling behind, losing the turnover battle, untimely special teams mistakes and an inability to make the clutch plays that can turn a poor performance around.
Despite the sloppy start, the Patriots made things interesting as they always do, clawing their way back within a score late in the game but as was the case in the season opener against Miami, the defense could not get the last stop to give the offense one final shot to win the game.
Here are the key takeaways from the disappointing defeat that capped the Patriots' 2021 regular season.
Slow start strikes again
An unfortunate recurring theme this season, when the Patriots have been off their game, have been slow starts. It was even something Bill Belichick spoke about earlier this week when asked to assess the 2021 team thus far.
"We've, unfortunately, started a lot of games slowly," said Belichick on Friday. "Some, we've started well. Others, we've started slowly. We've fallen behind. For the most part, we've put ourselves to be competitive and have a chance to win at the end of the game. That's a good thing. The bad thing is to start as slowly as we have at times, but I'd say, from a competitive standpoint, we've answered the bell in every round."
The regular-season finale again featured a slow start as Miami rolled down the field on their opening possession with a 13-play, 77-yard touchdown-scoring drive that was reminiscent of a similar scoring drive that Miami started the season off with against the Patriots. Both games started the same way, with New England searching for answers on how to stop the Dolphins.
The offense would compound the problems on the Patriots' first drive with Mac Jones throwing a pick-six on the first third down they faced. Just like that, it was 14-0 Miami and the Patriots found themselves back in a familiar place they've been this season in games they've lost, trying to dig their way out of a two-score deficit.
As Belichick said, they continued to fight but it was too much to overcome.
O wakes up, but D can't help
After falling into a 17-0 hole, the Patriots started to wake up and get on their game, thanks to some key plays like J.C. Jackson's end zone pass defense that held the Dolphins to a field goal, and Brandon Bolden's 15-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-1. Those two big plays in the second quarter stopped the bleeding and helped make what looked like a potential blowout early on into a competitive game.
New England would keep that spark heading into the second half, using a third-down pass interference call as a springboard to a field goal-scoring drive to open the third quarter that made the score 17-10.
But as has been the case too often this season, the defense couldn't come up with a clutch stop to give the Patriots a chance to tie the game up. On Miami's ensuing possession they'd need just eight plays to score another touchdown, again extending the lead to 14 points.
The Patriots offense would then in turn respond by losing a fumble on their ensuing drive and then the defense would allow the Dolphins to drive and add another field goal, with a brutal special teams penalty call on Lawrence Guy that turned a would-be Miami punt into a new set of downs.
Still, the offense would add another score on the next drive to again make it a 10-point game, and this time the defense would do their part, forcing a three-and-out. That complementary play then sparked the offense to another touchdown as the Patriots closed it to 27-24 with just under three minutes to play.
But once again, with the game on the line, the defense was unable to get a final stop, sealing the win for Miami.
Injuries concerns for Wild Card Weekend
The last thing anyone wanted to see in this kind of season finale are any injuries that could impact the playoffs and the Patriots, unfortunately, had a few. Starting tackle Isaiah Wynn (ankle) and exciting rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson (head) both left the game, adding another level of intrigue to next week's playoff game availabilities. Stevenson would return in the second half, while Wynn was later ruled out of the game.
Christian Barmore was also hurt on the final third down of the Miami game, colliding with his own player as Tua Tagolvailoa scrambled for a game-sealing first down.
Dont'a Hightower did not make the trip to Miami, while Kyle Dugger missed all of last week's practice as well as the game with a hand injury. Those are already four significant players to keep an eye on that could dramatically affect the Patriots on both sides of the ball if they limited.
Add in Myles Bryant, who landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list last week and missed the Miami game, and there will be some personnel questions to be considered this week.
The Patriots finish 10-7
The loss to Miami bookends the 2021 season with two divisional defeats to the Dolphins and although the Patriots are still headed to the playoffs, it's a disappointing finish to what was, at one point, an exciting regular season. Tua Tagovailoa has now beaten the Pats three straight times as New England has some AFC East issues to consider this offseason.
The Patriots are still headed to the playoffs, but after a 1-3 finish to the season they're limping in and the same problems that have hindered them in their six previous losses continue to show up. Slow starts, turnovers and the inability of the defense to deliver clutch plays down the stretch have become more common than anything else over the final quarter of the season. At this point, that's who they are and what they must overcome to win another game this season.
If those problems all carry over into the postseason, it will be a brief playoff run.
Pats-Bills round three on tap
With the overtime win by the Raiders, the Patriots are headed to Buffalo on Saturday night for round three against the Bills. The Pats won the first match in Buffalo 14-10 in a windstorm, riding a power run game and a stout defense that contained the Bills' explosive attack with some help from the weather. In the Foxborough rematch, Josh Allen took over the game with a flawless performance that saw his offense punt just one time. Mac Jones threw two interceptions in the 33-21 Buffalo win as the Bills overtook the division, sealing their second-straight AFC East title with a Week 18 win over the Jets.
The Patriots will have a quick turnaround for a familiar opponent as they try to recapture their mid-season, pre-bye magic against Allen and the Bills who are looking to reassert their divisional dominance and advance toward a second-straight AFC Championship Game appearance.