The game was an entertaining affair highlighted by a Doug Flutie drop-kick extra point, a solid performance by rookie QB Matt Cassel, and a three-way performance by Bam Childress, a rookie signed off the practice squad the day before the game.
The loss snapped New England's win streak at four and dropped the team to 10-6 for the season. Miami finished the season with six straight wins after opening at 3-7 under first-year head coach Nick Saban.
Head Coach Bill Belichick appeared content to go into the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the AFC. With the Cincinnati Bengals playing at the same time and losing badly to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots had a chance to move past the Bengals to No. 3 with a win, but Belichick began pulling starters from the game early. The score was tied 7-7 with 1:16 gone in the second quarter when Cassel relieved Tom Brady at quarterback.
Had the Patriots won and moved up to No. 3 in the playoff rankings, they would be hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card game. Instead, they will host the Jaguars at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. The Jaguars won their regular season finale at home against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, 40-13, to raise their record to 12-4. They have won eight of their last nine, but all those wins have come against teams with losing records.
The Patriots rested several of their banged-up players for the game, including LB Tedy Bruschi, RB Corey Dillon, TE Daniel Graham, CB Asante Samuel, DE Jarvis Green and S Artrell Hawkins. With Samuel and Hawkins inactive, the Patriots took the field with only five regular defensive backs. Hank Poteat started at corner for Samuel, and James Sanders replaced Hawkins at safety.
After appearing to concede the game by sitting down the starters early on, the Patriots nearly pushed it into overtime. Cassel led a 62-yard touchdown drive in the game's final two minutes that brought the Patriots within two at 28-26, but he overthrew a pass on the two-point conversion try as time ran out.
A seventh-round pick out of USC where he rarely played while backing up Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, Cassel played much more effectively than he had in the preseason. He completed 11 of 20 passes for 168 yards with two touchdowns and no picks and a rating of 116.2.
After the game, the rookie said, "I felt good. The first few series, things were moving very fast, until the emotions passed the adrenaline level went down." He said he learned a lot over the course of the season watching Brady and Flutie.
"He was so far ahead of where I was my first year," said Brady. "I think he has proved to the team and to Coach Belichick that he is capable of going out there and really leading the team."
The rookie had some rough moments. He fumbled a shotgun snap on his third play (and recovered the ball) then was dropped for a safety late in the third quarter while dropping back to pass with the ball on the New England 1-yard line.
He offset those mistakes, though, with solid play on four scoring drives. He completed his first NFL touchdown pass with 6:15 remaining in the game, hitting WR Tim Dwight near the goal line from nine yards out. Dwight dove to get the ball into the end zone and bring the Patriots back to within six points at 25-19.
On the extra point try, Flutie replaced Cassel for what appeared to be a two-point try, but before the snap dropped way back and then drop-kicked the ball through the uprights for a single point. It was the first drop-kick conversion in the NFL since 1941.
Belichick and Flutie both credited ESPN host Chris Berman with planting the seed for the play. "Chris Berman takes a lot of credit for this," said Flutie. "He mentioned it to me about a month ago during practice, and we talked about it. Bill [Belichick] asked me if I could do it, and I said yes. We were hoping to do it last week but never got the opportunity, and just out of the blue today we decided to kick it. I liked it better that way because I had no nerves about it."
Brady saw things a little differently. "I mean Doug has been so nervous for, like, three weeks because that has been in the plan."
After the game, the Patriots' locker room was full of chatter about the drop kick. A reporter asked nose tackle Vincent Wilfork why he hasn't tried drop-kicking. "If I did that, the ball would be on the ground rolling around and my hip would be out of joint," said the 325-pound lineman.
The game featured another novelty in the play of Childress. The rookie wide receiver out of Ohio State had spent the entire season on the practice squad before being signed to the regular roster on Saturday. On Sunday, he played on offense, defense and special teams, logging three catches for 32 yards and four solo tackles.
Belichick was asked what kind of skills Childress has that make him so versatile. "You know, similar to Troy Brown. He has got the quickness. He has good hands, instincts. Tough kid. He has been working hard over there. You know, in the defensive backfield we had a couple of guys that didn't play, so Childress was on emergency duty."
"On the first [defensive] play, I was a little nervous," said Childress. "Once you get the first play down, it's OK."
Novelties aside, the Patriots were off their game against the Dolphins. Even when all the New England starters were playing in the first quarter, the Dolphins had a decided edge on both sides of the ball. On offense, Miami moved the ball more effectively than any opponent since the Kansas City Chiefs, who handed New England its last loss on Nov. 27.
With New England having held its last four opponents to a combined 125 yards of rushing, Miami took to the air early and burned the Patriots with a succession of short sideline passes to receivers who were receiving plenty of cushion from the Patriots' cornerbacks. On the Dolphins' second series. QB Gus Frerotte, playing mostly in the shotgun, completed sideline passes that gained nine, eight and 11 yards. RB Ricky William finished the drive with a two-yard run.
On defense, the Dolphins held the Patriots in check for most of the first half by shutting them down on first and second downs. On their first eight first- and second-down plays, the Patriots gained a total of 10 yards.
The Patriots were kept in the game by a 65-yard kick return by Andre Davis to the Miami 24-yard line in the first quarter. Six plays later, WR Deion Branch leapt high to pull in an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brady that tied the score at 7-7.
For the day, New England gained only 259 yards of total offense, including only 55 yards of rushing. With Dillon sitting, Patrick Pass led the Patriots with 26 yards on nine carries. RB Kevin Faulk had six carries for 12 yards, and FB Heath Evans had six for seven yards.
Brady, who played only three series, finished three-for-eight for 38 yards.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, ended New England's four-game string of holding teams to less than 50 yards of rushing by busting out for 148 yards on 40 carries. Williams led the way with 28 carries for 108 yards.
Playing its starters throughout the game, Miami was far more dominant than the score indicated, rolling up 378 yards of total offense and 25 first downs (compared to 16 for the Patriots). Time of possession was lopsided, with Miami holding the ball for 38:06, compared to 21:54 for New England.
The Dolphins appeared to have the game put away when Frerotte hit Marty Booker for a 15-yard touchdown pass and a 25-13 lead with 9:13 remaining in the fourth quarter. But Dwight returned the ensuing kickoff to the Patriots 46, and Cassel led the Patriots on a five-play drive highlighted by a 30-yard pass to TE Ben Watson and the touchdown pass to Dwight.
Miami got the lead back to eight with an Olindo Mare field goal and left the Patriots with only 1:46 on the clock after the ensuing kickoff. But Cassel completed three straight passes, including a 21-yarder to Childress and an 11-yarder to Andre Davis that took the Patriots to the Miami 40 with under a minute to play. The drive nearly ended six plays later on an interception by Miami's Reggie Howard, but the play was negated by a roughing the passer penalty on Miami DE Jason Taylor. Two plays later, Cassel hit Watson for a nine-yard touchdown in the front of the end zone to make it 28-26.
Five New England receivers caught two balls apiece as the team completed only 14 passes. Davis led with 47 yards.
Notes: Kicker Adam Vinatieri tied a Gillette Stadium record with a 49-yard field goal in the second quarter and went over 100 points for the 10th time in 10 seasons. … Reserve LB Monty Beisel, playing in place of Bruschi, made just two tackles. … Poteat became the 13th different starter in the defensive backfield this season. … Brady finished the season with a career-high 4,110 passing yards. … Branch set new single-season highs with 78 catches, 998 receiving yards and five touchdowns. … Davis' 65-yard kick return was the team's longest since Bethel Johnson 93-yard return against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 4, 2004. …When Williams scored on a two-yard run in the first quarter, it was the first touchdown scored by an opponent in Gillette Stadium since the Saints game on Nov. 20. The Patriots had allowed a total of just three points in their last two home games. … Reserve LB Tully Banta-Cain recorded his first sack of the season.