FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Win to get into the playoffs. Win to clinch the AFC East (again). Win to secure the No. 2 playoff seed in the American Football Conference.
Those were the respective stakes for New England over the final three weeks of the regular season. The Patriots accomplished the first two with victories at Cincinnati and versus Buffalo in Weeks 15 and 16. This last Sunday afternoon of 2019, they sought to complete the treble by dispatching the Dolphins back to Miami and into the offseason.
Simple formula. Not-so-simple task, it turned out.
"It's tough to swallow, but they had the better day today," acknowledged CB Stephon Gilmore. He had the responsibility of covering Miami's top receiver, DeVante Parker, who finished with eight catches for 137 crucial yards.
"He made good catches, made some tough plays," added Gilmore. "He had a better day today. We didn't make enough plays."
"We just didn't play well today," remarked RB James White, who appeared to score the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. "Can't do that this time of year."
Early on, it looked promising for the Patriots.
New England's defense, on the game's opening drive, allowed Miami QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins' offense to get no farther than midfield, where a fake punt effort on 4th-and-3 went awry for Miami. Punter Matt Haack's rollout pass fluttered out of bounds downfield, nowhere near catchable for his intended receiver.
The Patriots, however, couldn't capitalize on the advantageous field position, going three-and-out and punting the ball back to Miami.
Fitzpatrick and his O then mounted a sustained drive that ended with a Jason Sanders field goal of 27 yards to give Miami a 3-0 lead late in the first quarter.
QB Tom Brady and the Patriots O appeared to be moving the ball well on the ensuing possession until TE Benjamin Watson was called for an offensive pass interference penalty that negated a big gain by WR Mohamed Sanu. New England eventually punted again, downing the ball at the Miami 4-yard line at the beginning of the second quarter.
Following a subsequent Miami punt, Brady threw what looked like a confused pass to either RB Sony Michel or WR Julian Edelman, both of whom were in the flat to Brady's right. In either event, former Patriots CB Eric Rowe split the difference, darting between the two players to make an easy interception at the New England 35.
Rowe raced to the end zone with the ball held aloft, and with the extra point, the Dolphins led 10-0 with 10 minutes left in the first half. It was Brady's first pick-six thrown at home in two years.
"It was just a bad throw. It was just a bad throw," the QB emphasized afterward.
New England responded with some excellent running by Michel and Rex Burkhead, plus a good back-shoulder catch by rookie WR N'Keal Harry to get within seven yards of the Miami end zone. Yet, they had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
Again, though, New England's D came through with a forced punt and the Patriots had another opportunity. This time, the O took advantage. A 50-yard reception by WR Phillip Dorsett highlighted the drive and helped set up a four-yard touchdown run by Michel just before the two-minute warning. Folk's PAT knotted the score at 10. It remained that way at intermission.
New England had the ball to start the third quarter, but gave it up via punt after just three plays. Fitzpatrick then marched the Dolphins 83 yards in nine plays. He finished things off with a two-yard touchdown scramble.
The Patriots didn't take long to answer, though.
During the next possession, LB Elandon Roberts, who's doubled as the team's emergency fullback during the second half of the regular season, was left all alone in the right flat. Brady spotted him and floated a pass his way. Roberts made a nice grab, eluded an oncoming Dolphin defender, kept his balance to remain in-bounds along the sideline, and rambled to the end zone for a 38-yard scoring reception.
A dejected Roberts wasn't in much of a mood to celebrate his TD in the postgame locker room, though.
"It was straight," was all he would say about the career highlight. "We lost, so, it was straight."
Tied at 17 in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins threatened the New England end zone yet again, but had to call on Sanders to drill a 32-yard field goal and reclaim the lead.
Brandon Bolden then returned the ensuing kickoff to the New England 40, setting the offense up with favorable field position. The Patriots then used big plays on the ground by Burkhead and through the air from Sanu to get into the Dolphins red zone.
From there, White took a screen pass from Brady and followed his blocks 13 yards into the end zone to give the Patriots their first lead of the afternoon. Folk tacked on the extra point to make it 24-20 New England with just under four minutes to play.
The Patriots' defense, which had dominated opponents for most of this season, only had to make a stop to preserve the victory. Yet, when they needed it most, they couldn't. Fitzpatrick methodically marched his Dolphins down the field and, with less than 30 seconds to go, fired a five-yard touchdown strike to TE Mike Gesicki. New England had one final possession, but in their own territory, a series of desperation laterals eventually resulted in a fumble recovery for Miami with no time left on the clock.
The defeat, coupled with Kansas City's victory at home over the L.A. Chargers at the same time, ensured that the Chiefs are now the No. 2 seed in the AFC, with New England dropping to third and having to host a Wild Card game next weekend for the first time since 2009.
Despite the loss, a number of Patriots did their best to look on the bright side.
"Why not? It's an accomplishment," Roberts declared. "You've got [teams] packing up to go home. It's still a great accomplishment. We've just got to get ready for next week. You come into the season working for the playoffs. Of course, you don't want to have a loss going into it, but at the same time, you've got to respect it. There are teams that come in here week in and week out to beat you. It's hard to make the playoffs in this league.
"We've been really blessed in our organization. It's a blessing to be in this position. Now, we come back and work tomorrow."
"Got to turn the page really fast," White stated. "Obviously, this wasn't the outcome we wanted today, but everything is still out there in front of us. So, we've got a good opponent next week. Got to play our best football."
Gilmore agreed, saying, "Just got to suck it up. Got to go back and practice hard and go from there."
All this past week, the Patriots asserted that this regular season finale would be treated like a playoff game, given the stakes. Now, the playoffs are here for real, and New England finds itself in the unusual position of having to play right away, rather than get a much-needed weekend off.
"Right now, we just got to go back and look at the film, learn from it, but at the same time, put it behind us," Roberts concluded. "Time to get ready for the postseason. Playoffs start next week. Get in here tomorrow, put this behind us, and get to work."
The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 29, 2019.