View a collection of the best images from the Patriots regular season game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, January 3, 2016.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Of all the challenges New England has faced during the 2015 season, this one might have been the toughest. Week 17 games are normally meaningless affairs for many teams, including the Patriots. Consider last season, when the Patriots lost to the Buffalo Bills at home when New England treated it like a fourth preseason game and rested nearly all of its normal starters because they had their No. 1 playoff seeding all locked up.
This year, though, the No. 2 seed was all that the Patriots had secured entering the Miami game. A win over the Dolphins would clinch that No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Would it be nice to get that top seed? Sure. But at what cost?
With a playoff bye week already in the bag with the 2 seed, could a hobbled Patriots team – which ruled an unusual six of seven players out on Friday – muster enough motivation to squeak out one more win against a Miami squad that, only hours earlier, fired its general manager and was looking forward to getting started with its offseason as soon as the final whistle sounded?
And – more importantly – could the Patriots win without losing any more key players to injury?
That was the test the Patriots faced going in to this Week 17 contest…
It was clear from the get-go that New England had little intention of emptying out the playbook on offense. The plan was to hand off as much as possible to Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden, milk the clock, and get out of town as quickly as possible.
"Everybody felt like we were confident in the game plan," wide receiver Danny Amendola insisted later. "Everyone knew what we wanted to do. Just couldn't get it done today."
"Whatever the offensive coordinator calls, we have to go out and execute… we just didn't do that good of a job today," echoed tight end Rob Gronkowsi. "We've got to work on the offense and just improve."
The lack of enthusiasm on the offense nearly turned into panic, when, on a rare first-half pass play by New England (they only threw it five times), QB Tom Brady appeared to (gulp) suffer an ankle injury. He was rolled up on from behind by d-tackle Ndamukong Suh and his right ankle got caught awkwardly underneath.
The immediate reaction might have been to pull Brady at that point, but he didn't miss a snap. Still, the Patriots looked like they were sleep-walking (intentionally so) throughout the first half. In fairness, though, until the end of the first half, Miami didn't appear too interested in playing, either.
When New England got the ball back to start the second half, RB James White's 68-yard catch-and-run seemed to spark the Patriots offense, which began throwing more deep balls in an effort to move the ball in chunks. Defensively, a fourth-down stop by the Patriots defense in New England territory also ignited a mildly competitive fire on both sides of the ball.
However, with the scored knotted at 10 in the mid-fourth quarter, a freak catch by Dolphins WR DeVante Parker on an otherwise well-defended play by CB Logan Ryan set up Miami's go-ahead touchdown. That gave the Dolphins' D the motivation they needed to force a 3rd-down sack of Brady deep in Patriots territory on the ensuing New England possession and effectively end any realistic chance of the Patriots' mounting a comeback.
"It's important that you compete and win games. Obviously, we didn't do that today," Jackson stated. "We've got some things to work on and I'm sure, this next week, we'll do so."
"Obviously, we're disappointed we didn't win the game. We have a lot of work to do to get ready for the playoffs," Amendola lamented. "Luckily we have some time to go to work."
"We've got to get better," stressed safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "Every year, you have to hit the reset button once the post-season starts. Right now, we have to do that. There's no more tomorrows, no more next game. We've got to amp it up and be ready to go.
"It'll be key," McCourty remarked about the upcoming playoff bye week for New England. "We work hard to try to get it. You have to have a sense of urgency to get it done. Guys are aware of it. Now, it's making sure as a team we get it going and use this week to be ready to go."
As the team set off for the airport, under a rainy South Florida sky, the weather seemed to mimic how the Patriots are feeling at the moment: washed out. But rain clouds always, eventually yield to sunny skies. The Patriots still had a chance to clinch the top seed if the Chargers somehow could pull off a road upset over Denver in the 4:25 kickoff.
Short of that, the Patriots still must find a way, in two short weeks, to heal up and regain the confidence with which they started this 2015 season.
"Confident or not," McCourty pointed out, "we've got a week to work hard. Never question this team's fight and ability to go out there and put in the work. We just have to see where it takes us."