Miami, Fla. - Maybe, just maybe, it was the orange jerseys. New England head coach Bill Belichick and his players spent the entire week leading up to Monday Night's game at Pro Player Stadium extolling the virtues of the orange-clad Miami Dolphins. Although it really had nothing to do with their special edition orange jerseys, apparently the Patriots knew what they were talking about.
With five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Monday Night's game between the 12-1 Patriots and the reeling 2-11 Dolphins, the game was still very much in doubt. The teams had traded punches and taken each other's toughest blows, with the Patriots holding a slim 21-17 lead. You could say that it never really should have been this close. Yet here the Patriots were in the fourth quarter, struggling to hold off a Miami team with little left to play for over the final three games of a lost season.
]()In so many similar instances, the Patriots responded with resounding authority and resiliency to close out close games. Yet even after Tom Brady's 2-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Graham gave the Patriots a 28-17 lead with just more than four minutes remaining, something very uncharacteristic of the Patriots occurred. They stopped making plays.
With home field advantage in the AFC playoffs hanging in the balance, and with a Super Bowl championship to defend, and with so much momentum built up over the season's first 13 weeks to lose, it was the Miami Dolphins making the game's crucial plays over the final few minutes of the game to grasp a 29-28 win.
"You know, we just made too many bad plays at the end," Brady said. "We made too many bad plays throughout. We just didn't play our best game, and if you don't play well, you're going to lose. It's uncharacteristic of this team, but it shows we have to play better."
When the Patriots needed big plays, they weren't there. Leading by 11 points with 4:06 remaining, the Patriots couldn't close this one out.
"We blew an 11-point lead with four minutes to go in the game," Belichick said. "You have to give Miami credit. They made the plays at the end of the game that they needed to make, and we didn't make them, which is why they came out on top. We didn't do a good job in any of the three phases of the game, and we need to play better. That's all there is to it. We need to play better."
Following what would be the Patriots final touchdown of the game, Miami took the ball on its own 32-yard line and drove it through the New England defense. Dolphins' quarterback A.J. Feeley hit running back Sammy Morris for a 15-yard gain to start the drive. After an incompletion, it was 11 yards to tight end Randy McMichael. Two plays later, Morris took a draw for 12 yards and another first down. On second-and-3 from the New England 19 with 2:21 to play, Feeley fired a pass into the end zone intended for Chambers. The Miami receiver was mugged by Harrison, who was called for defensive pass interference, giving the Dolphins a first-and-goal on the 1-yard line.
Morris leaped into the end zone from a yard out, giving the game a sudden blast of intrigue even though Miami's two-point conversion failed.
The Patriots took the ball over at their own 20-yard line with 2:07 left on the clock, the only question being how many yards running back Corey Dillon would finish with as the Patriots used their effective ground attack to close out the remaining minutes and the game. On first down, Brady's pass intended for Deion Branch was batted down by defensive linemen David Bowens. After the two-minute warning, Dillon was stuffed for a 1-yard gain. Miami called a timeout.
Suddenly, on third-and-0 with 1:52 left to play, the Patriots needed to convert a third-down play to ensure Miami didn't have the opportunity - no matter how minuscule their chances might be - to take a shot at the end zone. Brady took the snap, but was pressured by Miami defensive end Jason Taylor from the right side. As he fell, he attempted to throw the ball to tight end Daniel Graham, who flanked him on the right. The ball was intercepted by linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo, sending the Pro Player stadium crowd and the orange jerseys on the Miami sideline into a frenzy.
"That's what it was, it was a bad play," Brady said. "I thought I could get it to Dan [Graham]. I was trying to throw it and I got my arm ripped, and he just pulled [my arm] and it went right to the guy. It's just not a good play. If we want to win any of these games, we can't do that."
Still, clutching a five-point lead, the Patriots had a chance to prevail. Morris was called for a false start on Miami's first play of the drive. Feeley was incomplete on a pass intended for a double-covered McMichael on the next play, before a 5-yard completion to Marty Booker.
Then, with 1:35 on the clock and the Dolphins facing a third-and-10, the events of the evening turned more dramatic. Instead of looking to simply pick up enough yardage for the first down, Feeley lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone intended for Derrius Thompson. Thompson, at 6-foot-2, was matched up one-on-one with Patriots cornerback Earthwind Moreland, who was in for the injured Randall Gay.
The Dolphins called a timeout to stop the clock. The Patriots called a subsequent timeout. On the next play, Miami came out in a three-receiver set with Thompson in the slot on the left, matched up against Patriots receiver-turned-cornerback Troy Brown. Feeley went right back to Thompson, lofting a jump ball near the goal line, which Thompson leaped over the over-matched Brown to corral for the game-winning touchdown.
"It doesn't matter what the coverage was, I didn't do my job," Brown said. "I felt like I was in good position but I didn't make the play. He made a better play on the ball than I did and I let my team down. I didn't do what I'm supposed to do, and that's stop him from catching it."
You have to credit Miami interim head coach Jim Bates with taking consecutive shots in the end zone. Sure, the Dolphins have nothing to lose. But you should credit Bates even farther with his decision to take another shot with Thompson - this time at Brown. It's a wonder why more teams aren't attacking the Patriots secondary in the same way.
The Dolphins failed to convert the two-point conversion, but the damage had been done. The Patriots couldn't make the plays when they needed to, and the Dolphins did. The Patriots got the ball back one last time, but after Brady was sacked for a 9-yard loss to start the drive - Taylor beat left tackle Matt Light to force the pressure while Bowens got around Brandon Gorin for the sack -he threw his fourth interception on the final play of the game.
As surprising as it was to see this Patriots team fail to make the key plays it had become so accustomed to making, maybe this will serve as a wakeup call to a team that hasn't been playing its best football over the last several weeks. The Patriots can't like what they're seeing.
"You can't sit here and make excuses," Brady said. "We didn't play well enough to win, and that's the outcome. We're trying to play better. The good thing about this is we can go out and fight again."