By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — Even if you were aware that the Dolphins were on a relative hot streak in the second half of the season, even if you knew that the Miami offense was putting up points at an impressive rate, and even if you were realistic about the Patriots’ limitations on offense, there was simply no way you could’ve seen this coming.
Further, even when the Dolphins were up 10-0, you probably didn’t see this coming. And certainly, when the Patriots took a 24-20 lead in the final minutes, you absolutely did not see this coming.
Alas, it came, with “it” being a 27-24 victory by the Miami Dolphins, a stunning win that flipped the script of the AFC playoffs, forcing New England to host a game on Wild Card weekend and giving Kansas City a first-round bye.
That is not at all what the Patriots needed. But their performance on Sunday earned them the extra week of work.
It was ugly. So, we’ll follow suit here and flip the script on the Four Ups, Four Downs postgame feature by listing the negatives before the positives. It was that kind of day.
Brady’s Pick Six
There’s just no getting around this one. It was U-G-L-Y.
Tom Brady threw his first pick six since 2017 😳
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 29, 2019
The pick-six early in the second quarter proved to have devastating consequences, in a game the Dolphins won by three points.
“It was just a bad throw,” Tom Brady said of the pass, before repeating himself. “It was just a bad throw.”
All year long, Stephon Gilmore has played the cornerback position at a level rarely seen in the NFL. Yet he finished the season with a dud of tremendous proportion, allowing DeVante Parker to haul in eight catches for 137 yards.
Gilmore allowed two catches by Parker for 49 yards on the Dolphins’ first scoring drive, and later allowed three catches by Parker for 37 yards on the Dolphins’ game-winning drive.
“I feel like I let 52 other players down today,” Gilmore said after the loss.
Belichick’s Conservative Approach
Realistically, had Belichick told Josh McDaniels to run some passing plays that could have led to intermediate or big gains before halftime, it’s highly likely that they’d have fallen incomplete, thus giving Miami an extra opportunity to score and take the lead.
On the other hand, though, it sends a mighty clear message when the head coach opts to almost completely forego the opportunity to score points before halftime in a game tied at 10-10.
Belichick said he would have used a timeout if the Patriots had picked up a first down, but the play calling to start the drive with 57 seconds in the second quarter didn’t really give the Patriots an opportunity to gain that first down.
The Patriots offense struggled on the whole in the first half, but prior to that conservative approach, the Patriots had scored on two straight possession, moving the ball 125 yards on 17 plays to tie the game at 10-10. As such, the decision to pass up a chance to take a lead before halftime stands out as, at the very least, a missed opportunity.
Maybe that’s too broad of a brush to utilize, but be real: The Patriots should not have lost this football game. To lose to a Dolphins team that entered the game looking to stay healthy for the offseason that was just three hours away is simply not something that’s accepted in Foxboro. And it reflects poorly on the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline.
The Patriots were not sharp, committing six penalties for 54 yards, a majority of which were back-breaking.
A Ben Watson OPI (which was enforced after a Brian Flores challenge) negated a third-down chain-moving completion to Mohamed Sanu. The Patriots ended up punting.
An illegal shift by James White, who was not set at the snap, negated a 15-yard reception by White on a third-and-10. The Patriots ended up punting.
A J.C. Jackson pass interference penalty turned a third-and-10 situation into a free first down for Miami on a fourth-quarter field goal drive that gave Miami a lead.
Offensively, the Patriots had eight drives that lasted five plays or fewer, with only one of them ending with points.
Defensively, the Patriots allowed the Dolphins to generate drives with at least seven plays six times, four of which led to points. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 320 yards with a touchdown and no picks.
Special teams had some bright spots, but a 35-yard punt by Jake Bailey gave the Dolphins somewhat of a short field on a drive that ended in a field goal.
As Brady said after the loss, “It was a lot of things today.”
BONUS: Al Riveron
The NFL’s head of officiating and grand poobah of replay review added to the confusion that is the pass interference review system.
In this case, officials on the field threw a flag for offensive pass interference on Ben Watson, who was engaged with a defender on a 16-yard connection from Brady to Sanu at the end of the first quarter. The officials decided to pick up that flag, after a discussion where it was perhaps mentioned that the defender locked arms with Watson on the play. Flores then challenged the ruling, and Riveron — whose decision-making on pass interference reviews this season has been mind-bending — decided to enforce the penalty.
The decision cost the Patriots 26 yards — instead of a first-and-10 at the Miami 39-yard line, the Patriots faced a third-and-20 at their own 35. They’d gain just 14 yards on that third down and had to punt.
How you look at Elandon Roberts’ receiving touchdown depends on your outlook on life. If you’re an optimist, you’d note that it was a tremendous catch by the linebacker-turned-fullback, and you’d celebrate that it moved Tom Brady past Peyton Manning on the all-time passing touchdown list.
If you’re a bit more of a pessimist, you might believe this was a play that the Patriots likely wanted to save for the playoffs. Now that it’s been used, the element of surprise will surely be gone.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 29, 2019
Whichever side you come down on, there’s no denying that Roberts made a great play, and his lead block on Sony Michel’s touchdown run showed that he’s really developed quite well in his impromptu move to fullback.
When your special teams ace is one of the few bright spots, you know that it wasn’t a particularly great game. Still, Slater showed why he’s so valuable, first by playing defensive back on an early fake punt by Miami, then later making a dynamite play to leap into the end zone and tap a punt back to the 4-yard line.
🗣️ Matthew Slater: special teamer extraordinaire. pic.twitter.com/qhh7tK80kG
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 29, 2019
Slater has quite literally done it all for the Patriots during his lengthy career, and it was on display during this one.
When your punter is one of the few bright spots, well, yeah. Bailey punted four times, and the last one was not very good. But his first three were excellent, as they came down at the 11-yard line, 10-yard line, and 4-yard line.
Had the Patriots’ defense played anywhere close to the standard of the Patriots’ defense, those punts would have been significant factors in the Patriots’ 13th win of the season. Instead, they’re mere footnotes in the team’s fourth loss of the year.
Was it a great Tom Brady game? No, of course not. But he became the first 42-year-old to ever start 16 NFL games, he passed Peyton Manning on the all-time passing touchdown list, he tied Manning for most seasons with 16 starts (now only trailing Brett Favre’s 17 seasons), he extended his own record most TD targets to 77, he recorded his 11th 4,000-yard season, and he capped off what has been the single greatest season by a 42-year-old quarterback in the history of the sport.
It wasn’t a moment for celebration of any of this on Sunday. It’s nevertheless worth noting.
Sony Michel was highly effective, if underutilized, as he rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. … James White was likewise underutilized, but he came through with a 13-yard touchdown reception to briefly give the Patriots a 24-20 lead late in the fourth quarter. … Shaq Mason delivered a humongous block while leading the way for White on that touchdown. … N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu were not perfect, but they both contributed to the offense in much-needed ways. Harry caught three passes for 29 yards and had a 9-yard rush as well, while Sanu caught three passes for 35 yards and had another critical third-down reception that was negated by an iffy pass interference penalty. … Duron Harmon broke up a pass on the goal line, forcing Miami to settle for a field goal.