The Patriots only had one fourth-quarter comeback in them on Sunday.
The miracle finishes had to end at some point. After a disappointing third quarter, New England put together a 16-play, seven-minute drive to cut the Dolphins’ lead to 17-13. After the defense forced a three and out, Tom Brady came back on the field and needed just six plays and under three minutes for the go-ahead score.
The ensuing drive started ominously for the Patriots. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted the ball out of bounds, giving Miami the ball at their own 40-yard line. The Patriots were in good position after defensive tackle Sealver Siliga sacked Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, pitting Miami at third and 16 on their own 34-yard line.
However, Tannehill completed an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Brian Hartline before head coach Joe Philbin made the riskiest decision of the game: He chose to go for it on fourth and 5. The Dolphins converted on a tough catch-and-run by tight end Charles Clay. Some poor coverage by Alfonzo Dennard and Dont’a Hightower pushed Miami down the field and into the end zone.
The Patriots have no one to blame but themselves for the close loss. The skies didn’t open up into a flash flood like they did in New England’s Week 5 loss to the Bengals. There was no pushing-in-the-back penalty like in the Patriots’ Week 7 loss to the Jets. And there was no picked-up pass interference call to blame in this loss.
New England was given every fair opportunity to win. But the defense came up short when it mattered most. And yes, they have faced injuries this season, an unfair amount, in fact. But Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo and Sebastian Vollmer are not coming back. There’s no use in blaming any deficiency in this team on those losses.
The offense was given their own opportunity, as well. But without tight end Gronkowski and rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, there was little chance to convert once the Patriots got into the red zone. And before the excuses start coming about New England’s injured receivers, Miami was getting low at cornerback too by the end of the game.
Brady tried throwing into the end zone to receivers Danny Amendola, Austin Collie and Julian Edelman and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, but it was to no avail. If this team is going to make a playoff run, it’s going to be a grind.
Of course, it will help to get Dobson and Thompkins back. Thompkins has practiced for two straight weeks, but he still appears to be moving gingerly on his hip. Dobson practiced on Friday despite an injured foot. This team will play better with the two deep threats.
It will be beneficial if this team can still get the No. 2 seed, but they’ll still need help. After losing to Cincinnati in Week 5, the Patriots need the Bengals to lose one more game than the Patriots in the final three weeks. Cincinnati has Pittsburgh on Sunday night, the Vikings in Week 16 and the surging Ravens in the final week of the season.
The Patriots travel to Baltimore in Week 16 and face the Bills at home in Week 17. Their loss to the Dolphins shows this team continues to struggle on the road. A loss to the Ravens in M&T Bank Stadium would likely spell doom for New England if they have to travel in the playoffs.
I get asked a lot how far this team can go in the playoffs and whether they can win on the road. So far, they’ve proven they can keep up with any team, including the Saints and Broncos. But when they play on the road, they’re losing close, winnable games. That trend cannot continue in the playoffs and they need to figure out what’s going on before they do have to travel when it really matters.
Maybe it will help New England that they plain old lost. They can’t blame this one on officiating or weather. They lost. And they have to figure out why.