The Patriots had a chance to close out the regular season with a win to lock down the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC but injuries and ineffectiveness prevented that from happening.
Here are some random thoughts from New England's 20-10 loss in Miami.
RUNNING IT OUT –The Patriots clearly opted to manage their personnel over risking further injuries while trying to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The offensive game plan featured almost exclusively the running game as Tom Brady attempted just five passes in the first half and all of them were some form of screens. Brady passed for only 6 yards in the first quarter, which was the lowest total for the Patriots since 1996. Meanwhile Steven Jackson racked 10 carries before the break but managed only 28 yards.
WHAT'S THE PLAN –It seemed like a strange choice given the fact that Brady was a part of the attack. If the idea was to keep it on the ground why not keep Brady out of harm's way and start Jimmy Garoppolo and allow to hand the ball off? That would have ensured Brady's safety, which became a real issue late in the half when Ndamukong Suh rolled up on his leg and caused him to limp off the field. Brady had his right ankle re-taped and continued to play but the Patriots were probably fortunate the injury wasn't more serious. That wasn't the last hit Brady would take against a Dolphins front that brought some serious heat. Olivier Vernon was flagged for roughing the passer on a player when he arrived late, and later Brady was buried in under an avalanche of Dolphins and then was strip sacked on the following series. It got to the point where Bill Belichick replaced Brady with Garoppolo for the final drive, trailing by 10 with less than two minutes left. Perhaps Belichick might have been better served treating the finale like a preseason contest in terms of personnel, which might have created more urgency and effort from those on the field.
UNHEALTHY SCRATCHES –The Patriots were in the strange position of having all seven of their inactive players declared out a day before the game. Dont'a Hightower (knee), Julian Edelman (foot), Jonathan Freeny (hand), Justin Coleman (concussion), Sebastian Vollmer (ankle), Chandler Jones (abdomen/toe) and Sealver Siliga all missed the game but the Patriots also had some active players that weren't able to participate. Normally backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is the only New England player who dresses but doesn't see action. Against Miami the Patriots had an additional player out of uniform as tackle LaAdrian Waddle was in street clothes with a shoulder injury. In addition, Danny Amendola (knee), Devin McCourty (ankle), Patrick Chung (foot) and Rob Ninkovich (shin) were all questionable but saw action, although on a limited basis. McCourty played throughout but struggled badly in coverage, and Chung was forced to the sideline late after appearing to re-injure the hip that caused him to miss last week's game.
PROTECTION ISSUES –While the injuries will no doubt dominate the conversation throughout the week, the biggest issue facing the Patriots heading into the postseason is the offensive line. Health is certainly part of that as Nate Solder is on injured reserve while Vollmer is nursing an ankle injury, although he is expected to play in the playoffs in two weeks. The protection has gotten to the point where Belichick didn't feel enough confidence to leave Brady in the game for the final series, and the running game has been non-existent throughout the season. On Sunday Jackson finished with 35 yards on 14 carries while Brandon Bolden had 31 yards on nine attempts. As a team the Patriots averaged 2.6 yards on 27 attempts. Until the Patriots get things straightened up front it would be hard to imagine the offensive productivity increasing dramatically even if Edelman & Co. are back.
NOT SO SPECIAL PLAY –The Patriots have struggled down the stretch as a team and that includes special teams. Although they did not suffer any turnovers in the kicking game in Miami, the performance was not great. Stephen Gostkowski pushed a 46-yard field goal wide right in the first half for his first miss in 22 attempts. But the biggest damage came on a series in the fourth quarter with the score tied at 10. Miami faced fourth-and-12 at the 50 when Matt Darr's punt was returned 21 yards to the 36 by Amendola. Brandon Bolden was called for running into the kicker, however, forcing a re-kick. Darr's second boot was fair caught at the Patriots 8, and Dekoda Watson's holding penalty cost the Patriots to start at their 4. New England managed a first down but was soon forced to punt and Miami then went the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown. After forcing another punt the Dolphins got a 23-yard return from Jarvis Landry and took over at the Miami 45. That led to a game-clinching field goal. The miscues in crunch time were huge and served as a continuation of some spotty play on special teams down the stretch.
20-20 HINDSIGHT –Looking back at the decision to kick off to start overtime in the Week 16 loss to the Jets, there was an interesting start to the game. The Patriots won the toss and as usual opted to defer the option to the second half. After Gostkowski opened the game with a touchback the defense allowed an 11-yard gain on first down but then forced a punt from the 34. Miami's kick went for 51 yards and forced Keshawn Martin into a fair catch at the Patriots 16. The conventional wisdom from the prior week suggested a forced punt would set up favorable field position and possibly a game-winning field goal. Well, the defense allowed 14 yards before forcing a punt and they took over at the 16. Certainly not the great field position many felt would ensue in such a situation.
EXTRA POINTS –This marks the fourth straight season the Patriots finished with a 12-4 record. … Rookie Geneo Grissom recorded the first sack of his career, the Patriots only one of the game. It was also the 49th of the season for New England, which is the sixth-most in team history. … Brady completed 12 passes against the Dolphins, giving him 402 on the season. That's one more than his previous career high, set in 2011 and 2012. … James White recorded a 68-yard reception in the third quarter, which was the longest of his career. … Chris Harper caught a 6-yard pass from Garoppolo in the fourth quarter. It was the first catch of the rookie's career.