The New England Patriots closed out the regular season with a 33-24 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium. Here are seven things we learned in that Week 18 matchup:
1. New loss, same template
The Patriots went 1-3 over the final four weeks of the regular season, and all three losses followed an eerily similar pattern. New England started slowly in all three, committed costly penalties, lost the turnover battle. In each, the Patriots trailed by double digits, then staged a late rally that fell just short.
On Sunday, it was an early 17-0 deficit that the Patriots cut to 27-24 with 2:53 remaining before failing to sufficiently slow Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ offense on their final drive. By the time New England got the ball back, there were just three seconds remaining. They tried a never-had-a-chance lateral play that resulted in one last Dolphins touchdown, explaining the final scoreline. Along the way, the Patriots were called for eight penalties for 78 yards — some dubious, some not.
The common sentiment after the loss to Indianapolis in Week 15 was: “Surely, the Patriots won’t be this indisciplined every week.” But outside of its blowout win over a Jacksonville Jaguars team that will be picking first in the 2022 NFL Draft, that’s exactly what New England has been in a portion of the schedule it traditionally has dominated.
Play like this again in the playoffs, and the Patriots will be one-and-done.
2. Mac Jones needs to be better
This wasn’t an all-around terrible day like the one Jones had in the second Buffalo game. The rookie quarterback actually made a handful of superb throws Sunday, connecting on four beautiful deep balls to Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry. And once again, he helped bring the Patriots back in the fourth quarter.
But Jones’ mistakes were killers. He threw a pick-six to Xavien Howard on his first pass of the game, putting the Patriots in an early 14-0 hole, and he botched an under-center snap with the Patriots driving late in the third quarter down 24-10. The fumble came just outside Miami’s red zone, spoiling a prime scoring chance.
Jones criticized himself after the game, calling his performance “super embarrassing.”
“We put the other units in kind of a bad position with the way we played,” he told reporters. “You can’t blame or point fingers on anybody besides me and the offense. And we know we can play better.”
The Patriots don’t need Jones to carry their offense, but they have a hard time winning when he’s careless with the ball. New England is 1-5 this season when Jones turns it over multiple times and 9-2 when he doesn’t.
3. The Patriots now have some very concerning injuries
Defensive tackle Christian Barmore (knee) and offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn (ankle) both left Sunday’s game with injuries and did not return, putting their status for this Saturday’s wild-card playoff game in peril.
Both players would be significant losses for New England’s defense and offense, respectively. Wynn replacement Justin Herron generally held up well after taking over Sunday, but he entered the game with one of Pro Football Focus’s worst pass-blocking grades (38.7), struggling during his four-game stint as a starter early this season.
Barmore’s injury came in the game’s final minutes — via friendly fire from cornerback Joejuan Williams — and caused him to be carted to the locker room. Initial tests reportedly yielded promising results, but the rookie will undergo an MRI on Monday to determine the extent of the damage. Barmore has been the Patriots’ best interior pass rusher the season and arguably the NFL’s top first-year D-tackle.
The Patriots already were dealing with multiple injuries and illnesses on the defensive side, with linebacker Dont’a Hightower (knee), safety Kyle Dugger (hand) and slot corner Myles Bryant (COVID-19) all missing Sunday’s game. It’s hard to gauge what effect their absences had on a defense that surrendered 195 rushing yards and could not get off the field in crunch time.
4. Matthew Judon’s cold streak continued
The Patriots’ Pro Bowl edge rusher was held without a sack or QB hit for the fourth consecutive game. He registered a fourth-quarter tackle for loss, but he also was flagged for roughing the passer and lost contain on a 27-yard run by Duke Johnson. If they hope to recapture the defensive dominance they displayed during their seven-game win streak, the Patriots need their best pass rusher to play like it. And that’ll be especially vital if Barmore misses time. Judon hasn’t looked like the same player since the bye week.
Kyle Van Noy’s sack in the second quarter was the lone official hit the Patriots landed on Tagovailoa, who finished with just 109 yards on 15-of-22 passing.
5. The Patriots’ special teams still do not look like Patriots special teams
We saw two more miscues in the kicking game from New England.
First, Brandon Bolden was flagged for unnecessary roughness when he grazed Michael Palardy while the punter slid on a fake punt. It was a borderline call that Bolden (and CBS rules expert Gene Steratore) disagreed with, but the penalty extended a Dolphins drive that ultimately produced a field goal. Later, Lawrence Guy illegally lined up over the long snapper on a Dolphins punt. Penalty, 5 yards, first down. Miami kicked a field goal seven plays later. Take away either of those Dolphins kicks, and Damien Harris’ touchdown with 2:53 remaining ties the game.
These mistakes continued a long and troubling trend a Patriots team that, under noted kicking-game aficionado Bill Belichick, typically boast top-tier special teams units. Kicker Nick Folk has been great — he hasn’t missed a field goal from inside 50 yards since Week 1 of last season — but penalties, breakdowns and other uncharacteristic errors have plagued New England on punts and kicks since September.
Special teams coordinator Cam Achord, who was promoted to replace Joe Judge last season, could be on the hot seat as Belichick looks to right these wrongs.
6. The Patriots still can’t win in Miami
Sunny South Florida brings nothing but despair to the Patriots, especially when they’re forced to travel there late in the season. New England is 2-7 in its last nine road games against the Dolphins. That’s a .222 winning percentage. For context, the Patriots are 101-35 against all other teams during that same span (.743).
When visiting the Dolphins in December or January, the Patriots are 2-9 since Belichick arrived in 2000.
7. Pats-Bills Round 3 is set
It wasn’t finalized until late Sunday night, but the Patriots will be heading to Buffalo this Saturday night for a rubber match with their division rivals. New England braved gale-force winds to win 14-10 at Highmark Stadium in Week 13, then were bested by the Bills at home three weeks later, losing 33-21 to a Josh Allen-led Buffalo team that never punted.
Successfully flummoxing Allen will be vital for the Patriots in this playoff matchup, their first against the Bills since 1963. Jones also likely will need to be more involved than he was in the first trip to Buffalo, as Saturday’s forecast calls for bitter cold (lows in the high teens with a 40% chance of snow) but only mild winds.
Kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m. ET.
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