Dolphins 24, Patriots 20
It was well within their grasp. For a moment on Sunday, it looked as though New England would add another signature drive to what has been a season defined by impossible finishes. But their luck, (or clutch play, or mental fortitude, or opponents' willingness to wither) or whatever you want to attribute their absolute last-second success to from the past month, finally ran dry.
In uncharacteristic fashion, the offense actually started the game with mild success. Despite the fact that five of the first six possessions from either team resulted in a punt, New England managed to move the ball reasonably well against an expensive Miami defense, especially on the ground. The beneficiary of more early reps for the second straight week, LeGarrette Blount got in an early rhythm and had a string of nice runs to start the game for the Patriots. Down the stretch though, as is often the case with a Josh McDaniels-called offense, the team simply didn't stay committed to the rushing attack for four quarters. The result was an absurd 55 pass attempts for Brady, of which he completed 34 for 364 yards and two touchdowns.
Patriots players will tell you each year that one of the team's goals is to win the AFC East. It may not be the ultimate goal, as a team with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the helm can afford to have loftier expectations, but it remains a constant focus nonetheless. In a division that has lacked any real threats to New England's recent run of dominance, the Patriots had hoped to march into Sun Life Stadium on Sunday and come out with not just a victory, but a fifth consecutive division title and a punched ticket to the postseason.
"It's obviously very disappointing. We came down here with one goal: to become division champions," special teams ace Matthew Slater said after the game. "We came up short."
By failing to execute in the waning moments of the game, the stakes in each of the next to weeks take on a far greater importance. With a win, the Patriots would have positioned themselves for the number one overall seed in the AFC, and a potential first-round bye. For a team that has failed to beat a single playoff contender on the road all season, home-field advantage would have been paramount.
But in the NFL, great teams know how to win on the road. New England will get another chance to show that they belong in that discussion in less than a week, when they must go into Baltimore to face a red-hot Ravens team that has had their number of late-especially in big games. Oh by the way, they happen to be the defending Super-Bowl champions in case you'd forgotten.
The point is this: while the Patriots didn't play horribly on Sunday, the already razor-thin margin for error begins to look infinitesimally smaller.
New England lost the war of attrition yet again Sunday, losing starting left tackle Nate Solder to his second head injury (cough, cough: concussion) in as many weeks. With Logan Mankins being kicked to the outside, reserve guard Josh Kline was forced into duty and the offensive line had its share of struggles. It wasn't all bad, as the Patriots managed to limit the damage of one of the premiere pass-rushers in the league in Cameron Wake. At times though, as been too familiar a sight this season, Brady's pocket was never truly clean throughout the game, forcing a number of off-balance and rushed throws that resulted in incompletions.
Brady, for the most part, played extremely well; that's nothing new. With both outside rookie receivers inactive on Sunday, New England's cast of pass-catchers had the look of a company flag football league. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman both had career days, but their lack of size and physicality was evident on the last drive of the game, when the Patriots attempted four consecutive passes without scoring the necessary touchdown to win the game. Brady's final throw-picked off by recent 49ers castoff Michael Thomas- was intended for Austin Collie, a guy who is essentially playing part-time professional football this season.
The script that has gotten the Patriots to this point didn't change on Sunday, even if the end result was different. It came down to the final play of the game. Tom Brady marched the offense down the field and had the ball in his hands with a chance to emerge victorious. As a football fan, you can't ask for much more; having one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time with the ball in his hands and the final say, so to speak.
But alas, the defense showed its true colors. After an admirable first half that spotted the Pats a two-possession lead, they simply couldn't hold on. They were miserable on third down the entire game. Steve Gregory and Dont'a Hightower took turns being victimized in pass coverage. They allowed Ryan Tannehill to complete a crucial fourth-down conversion en route to what would be the game-winning drive.
This time, Brady just couldn't bail them out.
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