The New England Patriots not only lost on Sunday to the Miami Dolphins, 27-24… they also lost their first-round bye in the process.
All year long, the strength for this New England Patriots team has been its defense. Bill Belichick eschewed hiring a defensive coordinator for the unit this season, instead choosing to oversee the defense personally.
For most of 15 games, that decision looked wise, as Belichick reasserted his reputation as a defensive mastermind and NFL savant while his players led the league in nearly all major defensive categories.
And then on Sunday – the final week of the regular season – that unit collapsed against the Miami Dolphins, of all teams.
The Dolphins had been playing better of late, but they still entered this contest 4-11 and with nothing more than pride to play for. If anything, a loss would have helped their 2020 draft positioning.
But Miami head coach Brian Flores, previously a coach with the Patriots, simply isn’t wired with a “tanking” or a losing philosophy. He got his players to buy into his system this season and he did a remarkable job with a number of lesser talents, and on Sunday in Foxborough, those same talents helped him beat his old mentor in Belichick.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick outplayed his future Hall of Famer counterpart on the other sideline, Tom Brady.
Fitzpatrick completed over 68% of his passes for 320 yards, one touchdown, and a 99.6 quarterback rating. Brady completed just 55% of his passes for 221 yards, two touchdowns, and a quarterback rating of 88.4.
Brady also threw a pick-six early in the second quarter to his former teammate, cornerback Eric Rowe. The 35-yard interception return touchdown gave Miami a surprising early 10-0 lead.
New England clawed their way back to forcing a tie game at halftime with a 25-yard Nick Folk field goal and a four-yard Sony Michel touchdown run.
Fitzpatrick ran for a two-yard touchdown to open up the scoring in the third quarter. “Fitzmagic” actually finished the game with five rushes for 15 total yards and the score.
Brady threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts to get the game tied again entering the fourth quarter. After 32-yard Jason Sanders field goal for the Dolphins, Brady threw his second touchdown of the game, this time on a 13-yard screen pass to James White.
It gave New England their first lead of the game and put the Patriots up 24-20 over their AFC East rivals with just 3:53 left to go in the fourth quarter.
Everyone at Gillette Stadium and around the world assumed that New England could then just lean on the strength of their team all season – Belichick’s defense – to close out the game and preserve the win.
But Fitzpatrick drove the Dolphins 75 yards for the winning score, a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mike Gesicki with just 24 seconds remaining. The Patriots couldn’t get in field goal range to attempt to tie the game, and the Dolphins held on during a wild series of New England laterals to close out the game.
It was an eerily similar finish to the “Miracle in Miami” game last season, except this time it was the Patriots who were attempting to make something unusual and miraculous occur – and this time around, it didn’t happen.
The loss drops New England to 12-4 on the season. More importantly, the result of this game, combined with Kansas City’s win over the Los Angeles Chargers, switched the Patriots and the Chiefs in the AFC pecking order.
New England is now the No. 3 seed and K.C. is the No. 2 seed. That means that the Chiefs will get a first-round bye, whereas the Patriots must play on Wild Card Weekend for the first time since 2009 – a decade ago when they lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens.
If the Patriots beat their opponent, the 9-7 Tennessee Titans, at Gillette Stadium this upcoming Saturday (8:15 pm EST), they will be “rewarded” with a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Chiefs. That would mark the second consecutive postseason that the Patriots have to beat the Chiefs on the road to advance in the playoffs.
And then if the Patriots beat the Titans at home in the Wild Card and then the Chiefs on the road in the Divisional round, they’d most likely be rewarded with another road playoff game against the No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Win that game, and they’d finally have a chance to defend their title down in Super Bowl 54 in Miami.
Is it impossible? Of course not… these are still the New England Patriots.
But did their path to a seventh Lombardi Trophy just get a whole heck of a lot tougher?