It hadn't been done in 25 years, but on Saturday, the Buffalo Bills won the AFC East when they trounced the Broncos in Denver. That meant, if the Patriots had any remaining hopes of sneaking into the playoffs, they'd have to do something that almost never comes easy to them – win a game in Miami. A loss to the Dolphins would mathematically eliminate New England from postseason contention, while increasing Miami's odds of making it in as a Wild Card.
Those were the simple, yet significant stakes when the two teams met at Hard Rock Stadium.
"This was a big game for us, man," cornerback J.C. Jackson would acknowledge later. "We knew we had to come down here and win. Every play counted. Every snap counted."
Working in New England's favor, rookie starting quarterbacks hardly ever beat Bill Belichick's Patriots. They were 7-21 combined going into today, and the last one to do it was the Jets' Geno Smith in 2013. Miami's Tau Tagovailoa sought to become the latest. He'd have to do so, however, without a trio of critical playmakers: wide receivers Jakeem Grant and Devante Parker, both of whom are dealing with hamstring problems, and tight end Mike Gesicki, whose shoulder issue from a week ago is keeping him out of the lineup today.
Patriots got the ball first, but went three-and-out after losing yardage on consecutive plays. Yet, New England's defense got the ball back by doing the same, forcing a Miami three-and-out.
QB Cam Newton and the New England offense started to move the ball a bit on their second possession, but ultimately had to punt from around midfield. Special teams co-captain Matthew Slater made a tremendous play to help down Jake Bailey's boot inside the Miami 5-yard line.
Several instances of poor tackling by New England defenders allowed Tagovailoa to lead his offense on a sustained drive that ran out the remainder of the first-quarter clock. However, from the Patriots' 3-yard line, the rookie succumbed to pressure by New England's defensive front and threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off in the end zone by Jackson. The first quarter thus ended scoreless.
When the second quarter got started, so did the Patriots' offense, which went on its own sustained drive. At the end of it, midway through the quarter, kicker Nick Folk, on quite a hot streak this season, drilled a 45-yard field goal right down the middle to give New England a 3-0 lead.
The Patriots later got a lucky break. Newton lost the football as he was being tackled out of bounds, but a seeming 86-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by Miami's Xavien Howard was reviewed and reversed, based on the ball touching a Dolphins player whose foot was out of bounds at the time of the recovery. New England capitalized on the overturned opportunity when Folk subsequently nailed a 36-yard field goal. Rather than being down on the scoreboard, the Patriots upped their lead to 6-0.
Defensive pressure by the Patriots appeared to rattle Tagovailoa for much of the first half, but Miami found itself with a chance to score just before intermission. Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders, who'd made 10 consecutive field goals of 50 yards or longer entering this game, had a chance to increase that to 11 in a row, but just barely missed a 52-yard effort as time expired.
New England may have gone into the locker room with a lead, but having lost a pair of important defenders. Linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley left for the locker room in the early second quarter with an arm injury, while cornerback Stephon Gilmore sustained a non-contact right knee injury a short time later and needed to be helped off the field. Matters would only get worse for New England thereafter.
"They have great players, great coaches, too. They made some good adjustments," pass rusher Chase Winovich conceded.
"It's obviously a disappointing day for us," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters on a video conference. "We didn't do anything well enough to win the game. Miami was just better than we were today. That's the bottom line."
Coming out of the half, Miami had the ball to start things off, and the Dolphins marched 72 yards in nine plays. Rookie RB Salvon Ahmed punched the final yard over the goal line to equal the score before Sanders' PAT gave Miami its first lead of the day.
"If you don't stop the run," safety and co-captain Devin McCourty pointed out, "we'll continue to see it. That's what they did early in the game and really in that second half. That's what the game turned into. If I had the answer, I'd gladly share it and we'd probably play better."
Just two plays from scrimmage later, Newton hit a wide-open WR Jakobi Meyers near midfield, but as soon as Meyers came down with the ball, he was stripped of it by Howard. Former Patriots LB Elandon Roberts recovered for the Dolphins.
The turnover amounted to nothing. Despite converting a fake punt for a first down later in the ensuing possession, the Dolphins committed a pair of penalties that nullified the trick play and New England got the ball back inside their own 10-yard line.
Meyers atone for his earlier miscue with a big catch-and-run that helped set up another 45-yarder by Folk that gave the Patriots a 9-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Yet, Tagovailoa engineered a 90-yard drive over 14 plays, the last of which he finished himself with a nifty three-yard scramble for a touchdown. A successfully executed trick play on the ensuing two-point conversion made the score Miami 15, New England 9 early in the fourth quarter.
Shortly thereafter, a 42-yard field goal by Folk trimmed that margin to 15-12.
The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins in a regular season game at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, December 20, 2020.
Working methodically, mostly on the ground, Tagovailoa and the Dolphins O found the end zone once more at the end of another long drive. The rookie QB bulled his way over the goal line before Sanders tacked on an extra point to make it a 10-point Dolphin lead with about three minutes remaining.
Down two scores, the Patriots elected to go for it on 4th-and-3 from the Miami 23, rather than kick a relatively safe field goal. Newton was sacked and the Dolphins took over on downs, needing only to run out a minute's worth of game clock to seal their victory and the Patriots' 2020 fate. After 11 consecutive playoff seasons, New England is out of postseason competition before it even begins.
During post-game remarks to reporters, several Patriots lamented the end of New England's playoff streak, while trying their best to remain professional, if a bit philosophical, about where the team goes from here with just two games remaining in 2020.
"We experienced a lot of change this offseason, but that's the NFL," Slater observed. "It's very frustrating. Obviously, it hasn't been our year. We haven't done enough to be the type of team we thought we would. As to why that's the case, it's really hard to put your finger on."
"It hurts," Meyers admitted, "but it's a feeling we can use moving forward. You don't really judge a man when he's up, you judge him when he's down. You're going to have to see what we're made of and if we can bounce back and see if we can fix what's wrong here."
"I know that I've got two football games and it's a blessing to be here," added Winovich. "I'm grateful to have the opportunity to be able to compete and come in every day with my teammates and challenge myself. Life isn't always going to be perfect. This is a new week. We're already on to the Bills. Control what you can control at this point."
Reflecting on his first season with the Patriots, Newton candidly confessed, "We know what the standard is around here. Obviously it's frustrating. This whole season has kind of been the tale of just coming up a tad bit short. So, we've got to keep the optimism of what we can become and move from there. It doesn't mean we're not good enough, because we are. We just didn't show it."
"No team stays the same, and teams that don't make the playoffs definitely don't stay the same," McCourty concluded. "Moving forward, the 2020 Patriots won't be the same in '21. It's all about the now and trying to play for each other right now… regroup and keep fighting, because that's who you want to be as a man. [Missing out on the playoffs is] not normal around here, but… as a team, as an individual, you've got to keep playing."