If the New England Patriots have another performance like Sunday’s, their playoff run will be short-lived.
That was the message longtime special teams captain Matthew Slater preached after the Patriots stumbled through a sloppy, mistake-filled 33-24 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.
“Disappointing,” Slater told reporters after the game. “That was disappointing. … Obviously, we know we can’t play like that next week. If we do, our season will be over. So we’re going to have to dig deep and make a decision — what does this mean to us? I believe it’s important to us. I believe we care about it. But the talking is not what’s going to get it done. It’s going to be execution and playing well whenever we play next.”
He added: “I’m not implying anything. I’m just saying.”
This loss followed a similar pattern to the Patriots’ other recent defeats.
They again started slowly, falling behind 17-0 after an early Dolphins touchdown drive and a Mac Jones pick-six. They committed eight penalties for 78 yards. They turned the ball over twice — the Jones interception and a second-half fumble by the rookie quarterback. They rallied late — as they did against the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills — to get within one score in the fourth quarter but could not close the gap.
“I think it’s a number of things. Certainly, whether it’s energy, focus, execution, you name it — we’re not doing anything well enough early in the games to give ourselves a chance to get in a rhythm and remain competitive early on. And obviously, it’s tough playing from behind, and now the next team we play will be the best team we’ve seen all year. So if we do that, if we play like that, it’ll be really challenging for us.”
The Patriots’ uncharacteristic special teams struggles also persisted. Brandon Bolden was controversially flagged for unnecessary roughness on a fake punt to extend one Dolphins drive, and Lawrence Guy prolonged another by illegally lining up over Miami’s long snapper.
These kicking game woes, which have included three blocked punts and myriad penalties on field goals, punts and kickoffs, could put special teams coordinator Cam Achord on the hot seat this offseason.
“You make it so hard on the defense,” Slater said. “They get a stop, we’re getting the ball back, and we go from that to giving the ball and then them taking more time off the clock and kicking a field goal, and we end up losing by a field goal. Stuff like that just kills you. It’s disappointing, but we’ve got to get it fixed. We can’t have that keep happening.”
The Patriots trailed 27-24 in the final minutes but couldn’t get a stop against Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa-led offense, which drained all but 14 seconds off the clock before punting. The Dolphins downed that punt at New England’s 2-yard line, and a desperation lateral play resulted in one final Miami touchdown.
Having already clinched a playoff spot one week earlier, the Patriots now will face either the Buffalo Bills or the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round, depending on the outcome of Sunday night’s Las Vegas Raiders-Los Angeles Chargers game.