MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – They heard the chatter all week. It was unavoidable, actually, because not only was it the dominant theme of media discussions. New England's history in Miami hung over the team like a threatening storm cloud.
Today was an opportunity to reverse a recent 1-4 trend against the Dolphins in their home stadium. The win would be a psychological victory as well as an actual one. Compounding the significance of this contest, a tenth straight AFC East title for the Patriots, if they could just beat Miami down here. In a game chock-full of big plays, this one ended with one of the biggest in football.
"I just think it happened quickly," cornerback Jonathan Jones tried to explain afterward. "We've got to fly around to the ball and make those plays."
New England certainly looked like a team on a mission during the game's opening drive. The efficient Patriots offense relied on more runs than passes to march 75 yards over 12 plays, the last of which saw fullback James Develin dive over the goal line from two yards away to put New England up 6-0. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski then doinked the extra point off the right upright.
However, the Dolphins also relied mostly on their running game to gash the Patriots D and needed just five plays to go the same distance to take a 7-6 lead. Miami then held New England to a three-and-out on their next possession.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower's most memorable play this season may have come on special teams back in Week 7 at Chicago, when he blocked a punt that resulted in a touchdown. But after the Dolphins took the ball back, Hightower turned in a consequential defensive play with his emphatic 3rd-and-10 sack of Miami QB Ryan Tannehill – Hightower's first sack of 2018. That forced a Miami punt that fellow LB Albert McClellin blocked and LB Ramon Humber recovered, setting the Patriots up nicely at the Dolphins' 18-yard line.
A Tom Brady-to-Julian Edelman TD pass put New England back in the lead, but again, only briefly, as former Patriots RB Brandon Bolden torched his old team with a 54-yard touchdown run in the early second quarter. Miami went back ahead 14-13.
New England's D had serious problems defending the Dolphins' rushing attack, which racked up more than 100 yards in less than 20 minutes of play.
"I'm not sure. We'll have to watch that [on film]," said safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "They had some plays where they broke right into the secondary. We'll just have to see how that shows up, scheme-wise, and what we could have done better."
The see-saw battle continued when the Patriots got the ball back. Brady's precision pass to WR Cordarrelle Patterson completed a 37-yard scoring play, but Bolden, the former Patriot, burned New England again with a 6-yard touchdown run on the Dolphins drive immediately thereafter.
Brady then went to old favorite Rob Gronkowski on consecutive plays of 15 and 16 yards, the latter of which the tight end hauled in for another go-ahead score. Punts were at a premium in the first half, but New England's defense forced one of the few with another third-down sack of Tannehill shared by CB Jonathan Jones and LB Kyle Van Noy.
With seconds dwindling in the first half, McClellan again busted through the Miami line to get his hands on another Dolphins punt. However, since the ball subsequently traveled past the line of scrimmage, it doesn't go down on the stat sheet as a punt block. Regardless, New England had the ball at the Dolphins' 15-yard line, but this time failed to convert the gift into any points.
Brady should have hit a wide-open Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone, but the QB's throw sailed far over his wide receiver's head. Then Brady was sacked on the next play and, with no timeouts left to call, New England saw the clock hit double-zero.
Still, the Patriots clung to a 27-21 halftime lead.
New England missed more opportunities at the very start of the second half when Miami RB Frank Gore fumbled in Dolphin territory. It initially looked like the Patriots recovered, but Miami was awarded the football.
New England eventually took over via Miami punt, but at the end of an otherwise solid drive, Gostkowski pushed a 42-yard field goal wide right, his second missed kick of the day and second missed field goal in as many weeks.
The Dolphins responded with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill to WR Brice Butler, meaning the Patriots were forced to play from behind again and punt to Miami to start the final quarter.
Defensively, New England's best attribute Sunday was its ability to pressure the quarterback. Five different players registered at least a half-sack of Tannehill, and that helped keep the Patriots within striking distance. They held Miami in the fourth quarter, got the ball back to the offense, and Gostkowski put the Patriots back in front with a 32-yard boot with just under seven minutes left in the game.
The D did its job one more time, and the O burned most of the remaining clock, but not nearly enough of it.
The Patriots followed up two stellar defensive performances against New York and Minnesota with a wildly inconsistent one in Miami. Offensively, New England failed to capitalize on too many easy opportunities that presented themselves throughout the day.
Yet, it seemed like none of that would matter, as New England had more points on the scoreboard than Miami with seven seconds to go. However, the Dolphins somehow managed to execute one of the most difficult plays in football – a series of laterals that ended in a game-winning touchdown.
"It's like helter-skelter," Devin McCourty told reporters. "You don't know what they're going to do, but you know they're going to pitch it back and try to get down the sideline. That's exactly what happened."
"I was thinking they were going to lateral it, but, you know, we've got to play it better," cornerback Stephon Gilmore lamented. "Yeah, to go down to the last second, that was tough. We practice it, we just didn't execute it right. You never know in this game. Just got to keep playing till the last play."
"We knew it was too far to throw a Hail Mary, so, we knew it was going to be a lateral situation," said safety Duron Harmon. "It came down to execution. We didn't execute. We lost."
As a result, the Patriots failed to capture their 10th consecutive division crown for the time being. They'll have to try again – just like last year – on the road in Pittsburgh next week.
"Yeah, it was [shocking]. We got caught out of position. They pitched it back a few times and scored," defensive end Trey Flowers admitted to reporters. "We knew we had one more play left and they scored… it's tough. But we still got a lot of games left. Got to just bounce back. That's football."