By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Football games, as we know, involve a multitude of moments, decisions, plays, penalties, and mistakes. We know this.
But if we could, if for nothing else but the sake of the exercise, let’s distill Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game down to one single play. Because despite everything that had happened leading up to this one singular moment, the game was there to be won for both teams.
You may have already guessed the moment in question: Fourth quarter, just inside the two-minute warning, Miami clinging to a three-point lead, Patriots needing a stop, Dolphins facing a third-and-8 at their own 42-yard line.
Tua Tagovailoa stood in the shotgun with four receivers split out and a running back by his side. The Patriots rushed four, playing man coverage across the board. Kyle Van Noy was drawn to the flat, covering the running back on an out route, while Matt Judon rushed off the left edge of the defense trying to get his first sack in more than a month.
The play was there to be made for both teams.
It was a typically powerful rush for Judon. He was held a bit by Robert Jones, without drawing a flag. He ended up rushing past the quarterback, losing the edge and giving Tagovailoa a running lane.
The trio of Deatrich Wise, Daniel Ekuale and Christian Barmore was taken care of by the offensive line, though just barely in the case of Barmore. The rookie D-tackle had Robert Hunt on roller skates, shoving the 322-pounder into the backfield before reaching around his man to try to get a hold of Tua. Had Judon not been standing 3 yards behind the quarterback, Barmore’s effort likely would have resulted in a collapsed pocket and a third-down sack, giving the Patriots the ball with plenty of time, needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win.
Alas, Judon was out of position, and Tua took off running.
A play was still there to be made though, with Joejuan Williams standing 2 yards in front of the line to gain, in an old-school, one-on-one tackling drill against Tagovailoa in the open field. But rather than attack, Williams stayed back, waiting for Tagovailoa to come to him before committing to a tackle. By then, it was too late. The QB was past the part-time player on defense, and Williams worsened matters by diving directly into Barmore, who never gave up on the play yet was rewarded with an injury caused by his own teammate.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) January 10, 2022
Having gotten past Williams, Tua hit the deck, knowing that the first down had been gained and the game had, essentially, been won for the Dolphins.
Conversely, of course, the game had been lost for the Patriots. And really, it was a microcosm of the whole season. Or at least, it was reflective of the parts of the season that led to the Patriots spiraling out of the AFC’s top seed, losing control of the AFC East, and losing a number of games that could have — and arguably should have — been won.
Coming out of the bye, the Patriots had a real playoff test in Indy. They failed.
The next week, with a chance to essentially clinch the AFC East crown on their home field, they failed again.
And while there wasn’t a ton at stake in Miami, the moment presented itself for the Patriots to make a play with the game in the balance. They failed.
It wasn’t the only failure, obviously. Two penalties with the Dolphins in punt formations — one a terrible miss by the referee, the other a terrible mistake by Lawrence Guy — gave extra possessions that led to Dolphins points. A fumbled snap, a fourth-and-1 false start, and a grisly pick-six by Mac Jones swung the game significantly. Devin McCourty dropped an interception. An admittedly shaky pass interference penalty on Jalen Mills on a third-down incompletion set the Dolphins up at the 1-yard line.
Outside of mistakes, the Patriots’ defense also got carved up on the opening drive. to the tune of 72 yards on 13 plays and a wide-open Jaylen Waddle cowboying in the end zone after his touchdown catch. They surrendered 62 yards on 15 plays on the next Miami drive, resulting in a field goal. New England’s offense had the pick-six on the third play of the game before punting following five plays on the second drive.
Bill Belichick’s team was not ready to go. Just like in Indy. Just like the Bills game. And the Saints game. And the Week 1 loss to Miami, too.
It’s obviously a flaw of this year’s team. Yet despite the issues, they’ve found themselves with a chance to win late. More often than we’re accustomed to seeing in New England, they’re coming up short.
That’s the story of the 2021 season, a year which was somewhat positive for sure, but could have been a whole lot better.
Now, some leftover thoughts from the Dolphins’ closer-than-the-final-score-indicated 33-24 win.
–The 2021 season must also be remembered for the numerous special teams flubs that have sunken too many games. The blocked punt in Indy was a back-breaker. The Patriots most likely win that game if not for that. The Patriots managed to overcome the other two blocked punts allowed this season, but New England is still the only team to have allowed more than one blocked punt on the season.
On Sunday, it was an objectively bad penalty call that hurt them on Miami’s fake punt, but the end result was a 15-yard penalty. The penalty on Lawrence Guy for lining up over the long snapper, however, was black-and-white, and it was a killer.
This was a year where Matthew Slater — a career special teams ace, a three-time Super Bowl champ, a surefire lock for the Patriots Hall of Fame, one of the most respected people in the league — was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the loss to the Bucs, negating a fumbled punt return and leading to a Tampa touchdown drive. That may be the perfect summation of the 2021 Patriots special teams woes.
–Football is a complex sport … except when it isn’t. Sometimes you just have to catch the football.
(In keeping with the late-season mistakes theme, that was somewhat reminiscent of Jamie Collins’ dropped INT in Indy, a play that likely would have gone for a pick-six.)
No X’s. No O’s. No scheme. No nothing. Just a matter of catching the football.
–Other times, it is X’s and O’s. Like, say, coming out of a timeout and … having two receivers run to the exact same spot.
Here's a good look at what went wrong on that play, with two Patriots receivers running into each other and cutting off their own routes. pic.twitter.com/q8JIsgIJSG
— Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis) January 9, 2022
Again, that’s coming out of a timeout. It wasn’t quite as bad as earlier in the year, when the Patriots didn’t have the right number of players on the field after a timeout. But it’s close.
–We could get on Mac Jones for barking too hard while trying to draw the Dolphins offside while lined up for the fourth-and-1, but that doesn’t even really matter. The real matter at hand is … why wouldn’t the Patriots just go for it.
The ball was on the 50. Kendrick Bourne had just made a superhuman effort to get the ball close to the line to gain (more on that in a moment). Even if a fourth-down attempt failed, the Patriots’ defense had forced three-and-outs on the previous two Miami possessions.
How about a little confidence in the team? Or at least some qualified hope?
Nope. Call timeout. Line up for a play. Fake the snap. Take the penalty. Punt. Take the 10-point deficit into halftime.
It’s safe football. But is it?
–It’s still absolutely insane that games in the insanely profitable NFL are largely determined by out-of-shape officials waddling toward a spot and guessing where the football was when a player hit the ground. To be fair, this is an INSANELY difficult challenge. And the men and women in stripes generally do a decent job. But it’s still a comical way for this to be determined every play.
The aforementioned Bourne lunge on third-and-forever was indicative of that.
Before critiquing the spotting of the ball and the long replay and the unbelievable “re-spot” of the ball, let’s look at where Bourne looked like he was going to be tackled …
… followed by where he actually went down:
That’s impressive. Good for him. (He made some extra dough on Sunday by hitting an incentive, too. Cool.)
But that’s when things got obnoxious. You can clearly see in the photo that Bourne is short of the yellow line. But we also know the yellow line isn’t official. The Patriots needed the 49-yard line. Bourne is pretty damn close.
So, with the Pats lined up to go for it, the booth called down for a review, and the game was delayed for just shy of three full minutes. At that point, referee Alex Kemp made a strange announcement, saying … the actual spot was 6 inches forward of the call on the field. How the NFL arrived at the precise 6-inch conclusion is anyone’s guess.
It’s also irrelevant, because Kemp trotted out to midfield, but he didn’t even move it himself! Another official picked up the football and handed it to Kemp. How could Kemp move it forward if he didn’t even know where it was picked up? Mind you, this is all happening on a painted logo, where proximity to specific yard lines is blurred.
It was a clown show organization, to quote the famous Joe Judge.
Watch this foolishness:
I don’t know one way or another if Bourne had the first down, or if the ball was properly moved after the review. But the point is this: Neither does the NFL or Alex Kemp.
Compare that to the officials awarding the Dolphins a first down on this play, when Tagovailoa clearly never gets the ball to the sticks. (His helmet gets there, but he wasn’t carrying the football in his facemask, you know?)
“Did he get it?? Ehhhhh, maybe, maybe not, who cares, first down, let’s go.”
(People gamble on this sport. LOL.)
–Setting the edge is not sexy. It its, however, important.
Matt Judon got killed on Twitter for that, but it actually feels like more of a mistake by Adrian Phillips. Johnson was heading between the guard and the tackle, and Judon was at least making a push in that direction, assuming Phillips would be behind him. Nevertheless, just one bad play from a defense that finished the year 22nd in rushing yards allowed per game and 25th in rushing yards allowed per attempt.
–The pass interference call in the Raiders-Chargers game was the crème de la crème of examples of the word “uncatchable” not being in officials’ lexicons. But the ball that resulted in Jalen Mills’ end zone PI? Brother, that was not catchable.
–This was slick as heck:
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 9, 2022
Nothing else to add there. But sports are fun.
–On the positive front, Brandon Bolden had an incredible offensive year. After skipping the 2020 season due to COVID concerns, he was surprisingly an important part of the Patriots’ offense — first when Rhamondre Stevenson was catching up to NFL speed, then when James White was lost for the year due to injury. Bolden set a career high with 631 yards from scrimmage, topping his previous best of 423, which he set all the way back in his second year in 2013.
His previous single-season high for receiving yards was 180, and his previous single-season high for receptions was 21, but he caught 41 passes for 405 yards this year. Considering he had 15 receptions for 146 yards over the course of four seasons from 2016-19, nobody saw that one coming.
Kendrick Bourne also set a career high in receptions (55) and receiving yards (800), while tying his single-season career high in touchdowns (5). Hunter Henry set a new single-season high in touchdowns with nine. He set his initial mark as a rookie, when he caught eight touchdowns in 2016. He had nine touchdowns combined in 26 games over the previous two seasons.
Damien Harris also rushed for 15 touchdowns after entering the year with just two touchdowns to his name. Aided by the extra game, he now stands alone with the second-most rushing touchdowns in a season in Patriots history. (The legend LeGarrette Blount scored 18 in 2016.)
–There will be plenty to say about the Bills’ matchup throughout the week, but I will just say this: I like the Patriots’ chances better against the Bills than against the Bengals. Now, that doesn’t mean I like the Patriots’ chances. But if you’re telling me that Bill Belichick has two games of intel to work with as he prepares for a playoff game, on a short week, against a Buffalo coach that we all kind of question in big moments, I don’t hate it. It’s a huge advantage for New England.
And if Belichick can pull a rabbit out of his hat, a la the Week 13 Monday night masterpiece, then who knows — the Patriots season just may live on another week. Provided, that is, the Patriots don’t go out there and beat themselves once again.