MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – As the Patriots were flying down to Florida on Sunday, they nearly wrapped up the AFC East. Buffalo needed to lose for that to happen, but the Bills managed to salvage a victory at home in overtime in the snow.
So, New England would be forced to try to do it the old-fashioned way by beating the Dolphins and keeping pace record-wise with the 11-2 Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the Patriots will visit this coming weekend.
But, of course, this is Miami, where weird things always seem to happen to New England. Even the best Patriots teams often play uncharacteristically badly and have trouble beating some of the worst Dolphins squads in this place. It wasn't altogether surprising, therefore, when New England sputtered for most of the first half.
Penalties and missed tackles plagued the defense, which surrendered several big gains and hadn't given up more than 17 points to an opponent in more than two months. By halftime, the Dolphins already had 13 and would get more later. It didn't help New England's defensive cause that DT Alan Branch was lost early on with a right knee injury.
"They wanted it more than we did," safety/co-captain Duron Harmon stated in the locker room later. "Obviously, we weren't the better team today. We always thought we could fight our way back into it. We had to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, giving up big plays, missing tackles. We felt like a lot of the wounds were self-inflicted."
"It's that point in the season where, if you don't play at your highest level," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty observed, "you'll lose. Everyone's out here playing for something.
"Sometimes you don't play as well as you want to. That's what it was. We got things going at different times, but it was just too late… the deficit was too big to overcome. If we could have gotten that going earlier, we would have had a better shot."
Meanwhile, QB Tom Brady started out 0-for-4, including a poorly underthrown deep ball to wide receiver Brandin Cooks that resulted in an INT on New England's third offensive play from scrimmage. The Patriots' normally reliable rushing attack couldn't manage much, either, with just 28 total yards and one Rex Burkhead touchdown on the ground by intermission.
"They were playing really well. Their front four is disruptive. Their d-backs played really well. We just have to do a better job," explained wide receiver Chris Hogan.
The O tacked on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal as the first half came to a close, but New England – which is normally so good at scoring right after halftime – couldn't add to its point total immediately because Brady was picked yet again when trying to connect with Cooks deep downfield.
Miami took advantage when QB Jay Cutler threw a lovely touchdown pass to Jakeem Grant (You're not along if you're asking yourself, "Who?!"), boosting the Dolphins' lead to 20-10. Give credit to Cutler, who made good decisions with the football and looked confident directing his team up and down the field. Later in the third quarter, he'd find another, more well-known receiver, Jarvis Landry, in the aqua-and-orange argyle end zone for a 27-10 advantage.
Rookie defensive lineman Adam Butler appeared to give his team a lift on both sides of the ball when he registered a sack of Cutler near the end of the third quarter. Brady found running back James White for a 3-yard TD pass on the ensuing drive, and a near-pick-six by d-lineman Lawrence Guy deep in the Dolphins red zone almost completely turned the tide.
However, whenever New England had the football, it seemed incapable of sustaining drives. The Patriots were a woeful 0-for-11 in that category. Of course, the Patriots were without suspended tight end Rob Gronkowski for this game, but even his presence might not have been enough to overcome a horrendous night all around.
"We're focused on winning every game we come out and play. When you don't do it, it's frustrating. We couldn't do it tonight," wide receiver Danny Amendola admitted. "They played a lot of Cover 1 with a robber in the middle of the field, and … they played better than us tonight."
"Just didn't convert, plain and simple," White remarked afterward. "A loss is tough, regardless. Just have to get it together, fix the mistakes, and get ready for Pittsburgh."
Bad nights happen in Miami. New England is no stranger to this phenomenon. A loss here isn't the end of the world, or even the end of the season. In fact, as White alluded to, the Patriots can still neatly wrap up both their division and the top playoff seed in the AFC East with a victory this coming weekend.
"First of all, we've got to go back to work this week, have a great week of preparation," added Amendola. "We've got a great challenge this weekend [in Pittsburgh]. Another road game, another hostile environment. We've got to play well."
"We still have a lot of football left to be played, so, we're not going to dwell on… we lost," maintained Hogan. "We've got to move on. We have a big game coming up. Short week, so, we have to make the corrections quickly and turn our focus to the Steelers."