By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Heading into Sunday’s game in Miami, the playoffs had already been clinched for the Patriots. All that was left to gain or lose was some seeding, with an outside shot at winning the division still at play. From that perspective, perhaps a case could be made that the loss to the Dolphins wasn’t all that bad.
But a loss like this one cannot and should not be brushed aside. It can’t be sugarcoated.
This one was bad.
For one, it capped off an absolutely miserable finish to the season. With their late bye in Week 14, the Patriots were sitting pretty following the seven-game winning streak that saved their season. At 9-4, and with a dominant win in Buffalo under their belt, the Patriots were in the top spot in the AFC. People — and algorithms — began foreseeing a trip to the Super Bowl, a remarkable turnaround from the 7-9 season a year ago, a wild success story for Bill Belichick, Mac Jones, and the reinvested New England Patriots.
What came after that was nothing short of disastrous.
In a span of just four games, they lost the No. 1 seed and they lost the division. They lost three games and won just once … with the lone win coming against the worst team in the NFL.
Sunday’s loss in Miami was New England’s second of the season to the Dolphins. Miami is a team that beat exactly zero other playoff teams this season.
Dolphins vs. Patriots this year: 2-0
Dolphins vs. all other playoff teams: 0-4 (potentially 0-5 if the Raiders make it)
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) January 10, 2022
The Patriots can certainly point to some officiating for not helping them out in Sunday’s loss, but the game was likely lost in the opening minutes. New England showed zero resistance on the Dolphins’ opening drive, as Tua Tagovailoa went 7-for-7 on a drive where all but one of the 13 plays gained yardage. Jaylen Waddle — Miami’s leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns — was left wide open in the end zone for the opening score. Just 83 seconds later, the Miami lead was doubled, courtesy of a Mac Jones pick-six.
OH MY, @Iamxavienhoward! ❌
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) January 9, 2022
Bad read, bad throw, bad start for Jones and the Patriots’ offense.
From there, the loss wasn’t particularly dissimilar to other losses on the Patriots’ schedule this season. Devin McCourty dropped an interception, just before a Patriots penalty (however questionable it may have been) on a fake punt kept a Miami drive alive. Lawrence Guy was flagged for lining up over the long snapper on another punt, giving the Dolphins another fresh set of downs. Both fourth-down penalties allowed the Dolphins to tack on field goals. Jones got flagged for a false start while trying to draw the Dolphins offside on a fourth-and-1, leading to a Patriots punt. The QB also fumbled a snap at the Miami 22-yard line to kill another would-be scoring drive.
Despite all of that, the Patriots did have the chance to win the game — another theme that’s been present in most of their seven losses. Just like in the others, though, the Patriots couldn’t get it done.
After Damien Harris’ touchdown cut Miami’s lead to three points, all the Patriots needed was to make a stop. They couldn’t do it.
The New England defense immediately gave up a 15-yard reception before allowing Tagovailoa to scramble for 11 yards on a third-and-8. The game was all but over. The Patriots got the ball back at their own 2-yard line with 3 seconds left in the game.
The loss wasn’t catastrophic in the sense that the postseason ticket had already been punched. With the determination of their first playoff opponent out of their hands regardless of their own outcome, Sunday’s loss genuinely didn’t matter in that regard.
But it was yet another red flag for a team that’s lost too many games this season due to turnovers, penalties, and poor execution in critical moments.
Momentum for Jones — who was getting some real Rookie of the Year buzz after Thanksgiving — was stopped cold. He ended his year with six touchdowns and five interceptions over his final five games. Matt Judon — the Patriots’ defensive MVP who racked up a career-high 12.5 sacks through 13 weeks — recorded zero sacks and zero QB hits in the four games after the bye.
The gut punch of these games also might be significant and difficult to overcome.
After the Patriots cut Indy’s lead to three points in Week 15, the defense allowed a 67-yard touchdown run to officially lose the game.
After cutting Buffalo’s lead to five points in the middle of the fourth quarter the following week, the Patriots’ defense was helpless as Buffalo drove 75 yards in 13 plays over 5:07 to stretch the lead back to 12.
And while the 50-10 romp over the hapless Jaguars was a fun afternoon for New England, Sunday’s dud in Miami was a harsh reality check for a team that too often this year found itself wondering how different some outcomes could be if not for this physical mistake, if not for that mental error, if not for those bad breaks.
McCourty was asked after Sunday’s 33-24 loss if the Patriots will be ready for the postseason.
“We don’t have a choice,” he answered in as brutally honest a fashion as possible.
At the end of the year, the final record doesn’t lie. And the Patriots are 10-7. They’re good enough to play in the postseason, and they’ll be taking the field in the playoffs next weekend in Buffalo. But their results over the balance of the season indicate they’re unlikely to be good enough to do much more than that.