By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

FOXBORO (CBS ) — All week long, from the moment last week’s game over the Bills concluded, the message coming out of the mouths of Patriots coaches and players was simple and direct: Next week against Miami is a playoff game. Now that the “playoff game” has concluded, you’re left to make one of two choices.

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You either have to believe that the Patriots didn’t actually believe Sunday’s home date against the Dolphins was a playoff game. Or you have to believe that when faced with a must-win situation, even at home against a bad team, the Patriots aren’t good enough to win.

There may be merit to both schools of thought, but the bottom line is that the Patriots knew exactly what was on the line when they took the field on Sunday against a 4-11 Dolphins team. The Patriots simply got outplayed. And now they’ll have to play next weekend.

As a result, the folks who have spent their Sundays for the past 10 or so years shouting that the sky is falling … they get to have their day in the sun. All of the obvious weaknesses and all of the areas of concerns reared their ugly heads in this most-dreadful 27-24 loss, and all who have been shouting “We’re doooomed!” have been proven to be correct this year.

Of course, the season’s not yet over. The Patriots technically have a chance to win Super Bowl LIV in Miami. Buuuut … beating the Titans will be quite the challenge in and of itself. And getting a victory at Gillette next weekend will only earn the Patriots a trip to Kansas City, and a win there would likely only lead to a trip to Baltimore. Considering the Patriots couldn’t beat the Dolphins at home in a contest they professed to be a “playoff game,” you’d have to be a real optimist’s optimist to believe that another Lombardi is in the near future for the Patriots.

That part of the season doesn’t need to be written yet. For now, we’ve got enough leftover thoughts to run through from Sunday’s grisly performance.

–We should probably start with Tom Brady, because everything in New England always starts with Tom Brady. And any way you slice it, the quarterback was not particularly good against a Dolphins defense that ranked 32nd in points allowed this season. Thirty-second.

In terms of yards allowed, the Dolphins also ranked … 32nd.

The passing defense ranked 28th in yards allowed per game, and 30th in yards allowed per pass.

This was a defense that stunk out loud.

The Patriots’ offense has their obvious flaws, but they should have had no issues against the NFL’s worst defense, in the final weekend of the season, in the comfort of home.

And in that struggle, Brady was a big part of the problem. The stats — 16-for-29, 221 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT — don’t look too bad. And he was nails in a game-winning drive situation, going 4-for-5 for 37 yards and a touchdown.

But he made a number of poor throws, the biggest of which being a lackadaisical throw to Julian Edelman that easily got picked off by Eric Rowe and taken to the house for six. Rowe told that from film study, he gathered that “Brady, when he doesn’t have his first couple targets, he likes to just blindly go back to his last option, whatever his read progression is.” Brady did exactly that, and it was a killer.

He looked like Josh Allen on this throw to an open Phillip Dorsett late in the first quarter:

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This bread-and-butter pass off playaction to Julian Edelman is usually easy money, but Brady’s pass was no bueno:

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This one went down as a touchdown, but as a quarterback, you generally don’t want to require this kind of effort from your linebacker-turned-fullback when he’s trying to make the first catch of his football career:

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Throw in a sun-caused drop by Dorsett, another drop by Sanu, and another drop by Harry on a perfectly delivered ball, and the end result is an inconsistent offensive day. It wasn’t all Brady’s fault, but in a game with a bye on the line, he wasn’t quite as sharp as he or the Patriots would’ve wanted him to be.

–This throw from Brady, though, was a mind-bender:

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When that happened, I thought I had suffered a concussion. Had no idea what was going on. Didn’t know the intended receiver. Didn’t know how Sanu got there. Saw three white jerseys flashing. Good play.

–For as much as we’re going to nitpick the quarterback, it’s the Patriots’ defense that managed to be the most disappointing unit in this one. From my perspective, it looked like the defensive game plan was to bum-rush the middle of the line and wait for Ryan Fitzpatrick to soil his aquamarine skivvies. It didn’t work.

And most stunningly of all, after this approach clearly wasn’t working, the Patriots just went ahead and kept doing it on Fitzpatrick’s game-winning drive.

With no linebackers in the middle of the field, Fitzpatrick easily hit Albert Wilson. The lack of linebackers allowed Wilson to haul it in despite a big bobble:

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A third-and-1 was converted when the middle of the field was once again vacated, and Fitzpatrick hit Isaiah Ford for five yards.

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A 24-yard connection with DeVante Parker involved your basic man coverage by Stephon Gilmore, who flat-out had a bad game at a bad time. Gilmore actually had safety help over the top from Duron Harmon on this play, but that didn’t help him play the slight underthrow by Fitzpatrick.

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On a third-and-5 a few plays later, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy blitzed, and the Patriots vacated the middle of the field, allowing Wilson to run free and make a 7-yard catch-and-run:

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A second-and-2 was converted when Ford beat J.C. Jackson with a quick slant, another easy throw with no obstacles for Fitzpatrick.

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Then came the dagger. The Patriots actually dropped Jamie Collins to roam the middle on this play, thus forcing Fitzpatrick to make a much more difficult throw. Mike Gesicki got inside position on Patrick Chung and beat him by a step on a slant, and — credit where credit’s due — Fitzpatrick was on the money with the game-winning pass.

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Fitzpatrick did complete a couple of passes to the outside on that drive, taking advantage of a massive cushion left by Gilmore on Parker. But for the most part, the bulk of the damage appeared to have been the Dolphins taking advantage of an aggressive Patriots front, and killing them with passes over the middle. That was the theme all game long.

–Opinions on this defense remained mixed throughout the year. When they allowed next to nothing over the first eight weeks, they were considered overrated for beating up on awful offenses. When they got run over by the Ravens, they were “exposed” for not being as good as the numbers showed. There was a case to be made from multiple angles, really. But it all really depends on how the season ends.

Now, if the defense has some sort of awakening and somehow powers the Patriots to a Super Bowl, 2000 Ravens style, then they’ll earn their place in history.

But as it stands right now? In their own stadium, they let Josh Allen have one of his best games of the year in Week 16, and then they ended their 24-game streak of not allowing an opposing QB to throw for 300 or more yards when they hosted Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 17. That’s the same Ryan Fitzpatrick who went 11-for-21 for 89 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions with four sacks vs. New England in Week 2 in Miami.

There’s no way to look at that any way other than being a massive, massive letdown to end the year.

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–Putting the defensive scheme aside, missed tackles like this don’t help:

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That one turned a potential nine-yard loss and a third-and-15 into an 11-yard gain and a fresh set of downs. The Dolphins ended up getting a field goal out of that drive.

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That one turned a third-and-3 situation into a new set of downs. That drive also ended with a Miami field goal.


Gotta tackle.

You have GOT. To tackle.

–Back to the scheme though: This one pass to DeVante Parker kind of sums up the day.

Heavy rush, middle of the field vacated, Fitzpatrick stands in and takes advantage with an accurate throw in the face of pressure.

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It’s a good strategy in theory. I like my chances of forcing a Fitzpatrick miscue. But when it very clearly wasn’t working anymore, and when the rush wasn’t getting home, it probably was time to mix things up and maybe drop some more blue shirts into coverage. That change never came, and it ultimately killed the Patriots.

–The OPI call on Ben Watson was a big one. He certainly was locked up with Eric Rowe, no doubt about it. But Rowe also initiated contact off the line of scrimmage, grabbing Watson’s shoulder pads and not letting go as Watson ran 10 yards up the field. Watson engaged back, but eventually disengaged, and Rowe was the only person contacting anyone when Watson ended up in the way of cornerback Tae Hayes en route to getting to Sanu.

If it was called on the field, then, well, it happens, and it certainly looked enough like OPI. But for Al Riveron to choose this as the time to enforce an OPI after the fact? That is … nonsensical. But that has been the theme for replay review all year long, so it is to be expected.

–I wrote specifically about the ultra-conservative decision by Bill Belichick before halftime. Let’s talk about it some more though.

Start here: He didn’t call timeout before the punt because he values timeouts more than time on the clock. He said as much in “Do Your Job.” When you have timeouts, you control time, so forget about the call to let those 40 seconds drain before the Dolphins punt.

And objectively, considering the Patriots’ struggles, it wasn’t the worst decision to call an inside run and head to the locker to lick your wounds. The fact that the Patriots came out of halftime and went three-and-out shows that an effort to score before halftime was far from a guarantee of success.

But after thinking about it some more, here’s what’s really troubling: What was Belichick even afraid of? It’s one thing to have doubts about the offense. But by just emptying those seconds off the clock without even attempting to take a lead, he was also saying that he doubted his defense.

The defense to that point had allowed just three points, with Miami’s other points coming off the pick-six. Miami’s first drive went 30 yards before a fake punt failed. The second drive went 80 yards but stopped at the New England 9-yard line, leading to a field goal. Miami’s three second-quarter possessions all ended in punts, with the most recent being a three-and-out that gained zero yards.

So, if the Patriots came out slinging when they took over with 57 seconds left in the half … so what if they failed? If Brady threw three incompletions, the Patriots would have punted back to Miami with, say, 40ish seconds left. By not even trying to score — which is, you know, the entire point of the game — Belichick was essentially saying that he didn’t believe his defense could prevent Miami from driving 40-60 yards to get into field goal range.

That, more than the doubt cast upon the offense, is what stands out as the weakest moment of that sequence. You really have to play to win.

–N’Keal Harry Update: Still some ups and downs. He had a great catch up the left sideline to set up the first Patriots points of the game.

But he also looked like a fan plucked out of the stands when trying to catch this one:

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And he failed to get two feet down on what would’ve been a touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. He also got knocked into the backfield while trying to block Andrew Van Ginkel, disrupting a third-down run early in the game.

–Harry did not convert this play into a first down:

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But I think he can be forgiven for that.

Seems illegal. Too many Dolphins. League should investigate.

–We’re keeping the Patriots highlights to a minimum here, but you have to appreciate Rex Burkhead climbing a whole ladder of ferocious jukes early in the game:

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That’s three levels of juking, folks.

–Speaking of that, should the Patriots have run the ball more? The Patriots probably should have run the ball more.

Sony Michel gained 74 yards and scored a touchdown on 18 carries. Burkhead ran for 48 yards on just six carries. More than five yards per carry from the top two backs …  thinking maybe a few more runs would’ve been wise.

–In some sense, it wasn’t as bad as the Steven Jackson game. But the thing that makes this Week 17 Dolphins loss worse than the 2015 Week 17 Dolphins loss is that … the Patriots were actually trying to win this one. Back in 2015, they ran the ball 11,000 times before daring to let Brady throw a pass. It was probably the worst game plan of the entire Belichick/Brady era.

This time … this time they tried. Edelman was partly a decoy, targeted six times prior to the final play of lateral madness and not at all resembling his usual self. But for the most part, they really did try to win the game. And they weren’t good enough. To beat the Dolphins. Of Miami. At home. With a first-round bye on the line.

That one’s going to be tough for a lot of people to swallow, and rightfully so. The Patriots have no choice but to deal with it, move on, and figure out a way to stop Derrick Henry (coming off a 211-yard, three-touchdown game) and Ryan Tannehill (who’s randomly good now?) if they want to keep their season alive. It’s not exactly ideal. It’s actually a bit dicey of a proposition. It may portend ultimate doom for the season.

It’s not great. But it ought to be quite interesting to watch. For as much as most of us may believe this truly is not a special year for the Patriots, we also know that it’s always a risk to formally count out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in January.

–The final image of the regular season for the 2019 Patriots:

Tom Brady jumps to try to catch a lateral vs. the Dolphins. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Seems right.

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You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.