Everything was in place for the Patriots to not only exorcise their Miami demons but also to grab their hats and T-shirts for yet another AFC East title. But then it wasn’t.
The Patriots led 33-28 in the waning seconds when Miami used a pair of laterals to go 69 yards for the winning touchdown as time expired. Instead of capturing another division title, New England dropped to 9-4 and will need at least another week to clinch.
The improbable loss had a lot of twists and turns, but ended in crippling fashion. Here are some observations from Miami’s miracle win.
-The second-guessing began almost immediately after Kenyan Drake crossed the goal line to deliver a crushing defeat to the Patriots as the clock hit zero. With the Patriots leading 33-28 and just seven ticks left, Ryan Tannehill threw a 20-yard cross to Kenny Stills and the Dolphins were still more than 50 yards away from victory. He soon lateraled to Davante Parker, who soon pitched it to Drake around the Patriots 40. From there Drake did the rest, outmaneuvering the Patriots secondary all the way to the goal line where he raced just inside the right pylon for the winning touchdown. That outcome was bad enough, but the presence of Rob Gronkowski back deep as a safety drew plenty of questions, especially when it was learned that Devin McCourty was not in the lineup. With the ball 69 yards away from the goal line, Tannehill did not have the ability to get the ball in the end zone. Nonetheless, Bill Belichick opted for Gronkowski, who normally is only part of defensive packages when a Hail Mary is expected. The Dolphins didn’t figure to try one given the spot on the field, and the tight end was the last line of defense with a chance to get Drake but was unable to do it. Adrian Clayborn, Adam Butler, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Gronkowski comprised the defense on the fateful play, and ultimately failed to get the job done.
-The unfortunate ending for Gronkowski overshadowed what was his best game of the season since the opener. He caught eight balls for 107 yards and a touchdown and was once again productive throughout in a manner not seen too often this season. He absorbed plenty of tough blows after the catch as well, and popped right up after each one. Having a healthy Gronkowski down the stretch could change the complexion of the offense.
-Brady was also back in top form, ripping some impressive throws throughout the day to convert countless third downs. The Patriots went 9-for-16 on third down, most coming on pinpoint Brady throws as he ripped apart the Dolphins zone coverages. Brady threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns in what was one of his best outings of the season.
-Belichick spent the bye week addressing his special teams, which have been uncharacteristically supbar most of the season. He added some veterans to the mix, signing Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber to bolster the kicking game. That pair combined to come up with a huge play late in the first quarter that helped the Patriots take the lead. The Dolphins were forced to punt on the second possession when McClellan broke free up the middle to block Matt Haack’s kick, and Humber recovered the ball at Miami’s 18. Five plays later, Brady found Julian Edelman for a 2-yard touchdown to give New England a 13-7 lead.
-McClellan turned the trick a second time, getting Haack’s punt late in the first half to set the Patriots up at the Dolphins 15 with 30 seconds left. It was a perfect chance to deliver a knockout blow but the Dolphins defense took advantage of some rare poor game management by Brady. After picking up a first down at the 2 with a pass to Gronkowski, Brady threw one away on first down, missed an open Chris Hogan badly on second down and took an excusable sack on third down despite the fact that the Patriots were out of timeouts. The clock expired and the Patriots had to settle for a 27-21 lead at the break. Brady later admitted he thought the Patriots had another timeout and that was why he didn’t throw it away.
-The offense was quite effective in the first half, scoring touchdowns on three of its first four drives. The opening march was a thing of beauty with a great mix of run and pass, but the touchdown in the second quarter from Tom Brady to Cordarrelle Patterson may have been the team’s best looking play of the season. Patterson lined up in the slot and ran past safety Walt Aikens as Brady threw an absolute bullet that hit him in stride in the end zone for the 37-yard touchdown. Few plays this season have been as impressive-looking as the Brady-to-Patterson hookup.
-There was a vital sequence of plays midway through the fourth quarter that helped the Patriots take the lead. Miami was facing a second-and-16 while holding a 28-27 lead when Kenny Stills caught a pass and beat rookie J.C. Jackson with a quick move into the clear. But as Stills approached the first down marker, he inexplicably dove to the ground a yard shy despite being in the clear. He easily would have moved the chains by simply running until he was tackled, but instead he created a third-and-one. John Simon then broke through and sacked Ryan Tannehill following a play-action fake for a 7-yard loss. That led to a punt and the Patriots then drove to a go-ahead field goal.
-For the second straight game Danny Shelton was a healthy scratch. Based on the strong work of fellow defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown of late, the coaches likely felt the run defense was better off without the struggling Shelton. The run defense was absolutely brutal in Miami, however. Frank Gore carried 12 times for 92 yards while Brandon Bolden ripped off a pair of touchdown runs on his two carries, one of which went for 54 yards. Miami piled up 189 yards on the ground on just 21 carries for a whopping 9-yard average. The Patriots had no answers for the Miami running game.
-Rookie Duke Dawson was also a healthy scratch and has yet to make his NFL debut after being activated off injured reserve three weeks ago. James Ferentz, Keion Crossen, Keionta Davis, Derek Rivers and Dwayne Allen rounded out the list of inactives.
-The good news was Gilmore was active and started in his normal spot at cornerback. Gilmore was added to the injury report on Friday with an ankle issue and was listed as questionable, but he joined his teammates for the normal pregame workout routine in the field and was in the starting lineup.
-The Dolphins were without arguably their best player as Xavien Howard was declared out on Friday. The corner is developing into one of the best playmakers in football and is leading the league in interceptions with seven. He picked off Brady twice in last year’s Miami victory and his absence left a gaping hole in the Dolphins secondary.