A funny thing happened on the way to the Week 15 showdown between the two top teams in the AFC. The Patriots, who will travel to Pittsburgh next Sunday, stubbed their toe against division rival Miami, who dominated New England in a 27-20 victory that wasn't that close.
The loss dropped Tom Brady's record in Miami to 7-9, and it leaves the Patriots at 10-3, a game behind the conference-leading Steelers.
Here are some random thoughts from the Week 14 loss.
-While the focus has been on the Steelers for quite some time, there are some other seeding ramifications that are now in play. First and foremost the Patriots can grab the top seed from Pittsburgh with a win next week at Heinz Field. That would leave the teams tied and obviously give New England the tiebreaker. But a second straight loss would suddenly put a bye in jeopardy. Jacksonville sits at 9-4, and assuming the Jags win their Week 15 home game against a struggling Houston team, the teams would be tied if the Patriots drop the game in Pittsburgh. If the Patriots and Jags finished 12-4, Jacksonville would hold the tiebreaker based on a better conference record.
-The Patriots were forced to go without some key personnel on both sides of the ball in Miami. Rob Gronkowski served his one-game suspension stemming from his late hit on Tre'Davious White last week in Buffalo, leaving Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister as the lone tight ends. On defense, Trey Flowers (ribs) and Kyle Van Noy (calf) were both declared out and did not make the trip to South Florida. Marcus Cannon also missed his fifth straight game with an ankle injury and was replaced by LaAdrian Waddle, who returned after missing the Bills game with an ankle injury of his own. Waddle did not start, however, as Cam Fleming remained at right tackle.
-Things got even hairier along the defensive front seven as Alan Branch and Lawrence Guy both were shaken up in the first half. Branch appeared to be the more serious of the two, leaving for the locker room with a knee injury before returning to the lineup. Branch wasn't back for long, however, and was soon in the locker room seeking further medical attention. He did not return. Guy appeared to injure his shoulder in the first quarter but was able to remain in the game.
-On the flip side, the Patriots welcomed back a couple of key players. Wide receiver Chris Hogan returned after missing four games with shoulder injured suffered in the win over San Diego. Matthew Slater also returned after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury, and Trevor Reilly (concussion) was also in uniform after missing the Bills game. In addition, linebacker Jonathan Freeny was active after re-signing with the Patriots earlier in the week.
The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins in a regular season game at Hard Rock Stadium on Monday, December 11, 2017.
-When Miami opened the scoring with a 30-yard Cody Parkey field goal it marked the first time the Patriots had trailed in a game since their Week 8 win over the Chargers. Los Angeles' Melvin Gordon staked the visitors to a 7-0 lead with an 87-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and New England never trailed in any of their ensuing four victories, a stretch of more than 290 minutes.
-The Dolphins dominated the first half despite taking just a 13-10 lead to the locker room. Miami outgained New England 123-2 in the first quarter and surrendered eight first downs while being held without a single one. But Miami was forced to settle for a pair of field goals and led just 6-0 after one, leaving the Patriots some leeway in the second quarter to regain their composure and get back in the game. By halftime the numbers improved a bit but Miami still held a decisive 217-120 edge in yards and held the Patriots to 0-for-4 on third downs in the opening 30 minutes.
-Miami's defense did a great job of forcing things underneath throughout the early part of the game. Of the Patriots 120 yards in the first half, all but 8 came from running backs. Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead each had 52 of those yards while James White accounted for the other 8. Burkhead was the recipient of one of the best screens for the Patriots this season when he ripped of 24 yards in the second quarter, running behind Joe Thuney's block on Kiko Alonso well downfield.
-Things didn't change much in the second half as the Dolphins continued to apply significant pressure on Tom Brady and also continued to get off the field. New England failed to convert any of its 11 third downs, marking the first time since 1991 that has happened. The Dolphins used a great combination of mixed coverages with disguised schemes causing some problems. The most effective defender for Miami was cornerback Xavien Howard, who blanketed Brandin Cooks from start to finish. Cooks finished with just one catch for 38 yards on seven targets, and that single reception came on the final possession of the game. Howard also picked off a pair of Brady passes, marking the first time Brady has thrown more than one in a game since Week 12 of 2015 against Philadelphia. He also threw two in last year's divisional playoff win over Houston. Brady has now thrown six picks on the season and at least one in three straight games. It's the first time he threw interceptions in three straight games since Weeks 8-10 in 2015.
-Continuing with the Howard-Cooks matchup, it was curious that the Patriots continued to test the second-year corner instead of testing their luck against backups Bobby McCain and Alterraun Verner. Verner in particular has played sparingly this season and with starter Cordrea Tankersley out with ankle/shoulder injuries it would have made some sense to focus on Danny Amendola and Hogan. Those two were targeted 14 times combined but made just seven catches for a total of 77 yards. Clearly Howard was getting the better of Cooks yet it seemed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was content to try to push the ball downfield in Cooks' direction.
-While the offense was clearly the main problem in Miami, the defense wasn't much better. As has been the case most of the season the run defense was porous and with Branch out with an injury that's something to keep an eye on next week in Pittsburgh against the dangerous Le'Veon Bell. Kenyan Drake filled in for the injured Damien Williamsand posted his second straight 100-yard game, racking up 114 yards on 25 carries for a solid 4.6-yard average. Drake posted runs of 31 and 26 yards, and his numbers took a bit of a hit late when the Patriots sold out to stop the run down the stretch as they desperately tried to stage a comeback.
-Things weren't much better against the pass as Jay Cutler was in command most of the night. He finished 25 of 38 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns for a 112.1 passer rating. His numbers also could have been better if not for a few key drops, none bigger than Jakeem Grant's in the fourth quarter deep ball that should have resulted in a touchdown. The secondary struggled chasing Miami's receivers, particularly Malcolm Butler, who gave up a 25-yard touchdown to Grant and was later beaten for the would-be score. Drake was dangerous as a receiver as well, tacking on 79 yards on five catches.
-In addition to the problems with the game plan, Bill Belichick also is deserving of some second-guessing when it comes to game management. Trailing by 10 midway through the fourth quarter the Patriots chose to punt on fourth-and-four from their own 25 with 7:10 left in the game. They did so again on their next possession on fourth-and-11 from their 21 with 4:28 left. By punting on both occasions Belichick basically was relying on Miami doing something foolish to greatly aid a potential comeback. The Dolphins didn't generate much offense in the fourth quarter but they didn't need to, and the Patriots never really applied much game pressure and failed to take advantage of all their chances to do so by choosing to punt on a pair of fourth downs. For the game Miami forced New England's top-ranked offense into seven three-and-outs.
-Despite the first half troubles, the Patriots managed to drive 47 yards for a field goal over the final 3:31 of the half to put points on the board on their final drive of a half for the 10th time this season.
-The Patriots lost for the first time this season on the road, snapping their 15-game winning streak away from Foxborough. It was the second longest road winning streak in NFL history, trailing only the 18 in a row won by San Francisco from 1988-90.