The Patriots suffered a shocking and unexpected loss today against their division foes, the Miami Dolphins. The defeat moved the team to 12-4, and for the first time in 10 years, New England will be playing during the Wild Card Round.
This was not how today was supposed to go.
Entering Sunday, New England was 12-3, and a win (or Kansas City loss) would secure a 10th straight playoff bye week. It would allow New England to host the Chiefs, Texans, or Bills in the Divisional Round. When at home in the Divisional Round, the Patriots are 12-1 during the Brady/Belichick Era.
With a game against the 4-11 Miami Dolphins, a team Brady had only lost at home to once in his career (a game in 2005 where he was benched early in Week 17), it was pretty hard to comprehend a scenario where the team would lose.
The Patriots were full of surprises today.
Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 320 yards and a touchdown pass, exploiting the man coverage the Patriots deployed most of the day with quick slants. DeVante Parker had 8 catches for 137 yards while being primarily covered by potential Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. For Gilmore, he was targeted 9 times in coverage today, giving up 7 catches for 119 yards, which was good for a passer rating of 118.8; simply put, it was his worse game of 2019.
Tom Brady and the Patriots offense struggled early, as he was 4 for 11 to start the game. There might have been a drop or two, but had his share of bad passes, including a confusing one near Sony Michel and Julian Edelman that ended up in the hands of former Patriot Eric Rowe for a pick six.
That pick made it 10-0 Miami, but the Patriots were able to score on their next 2 possessions to tie the game. With less than two minutes to go in the half, New England had a chance to get the ball back with time on the clock, but after a third down stop, the Patriots, with all three timeouts, decided not to call one, and the clock ran down.
The Patriots got the ball back with just under a minute, but decided to play conservative, apparently worried of giving Miami a chance to get the ball back.
They would get the ball back to start the second half, but not pushing the gas pedal when the team had found some success moving the ball was perplexing.
The Patriots offense looked better in the second half, as Brady threw for 2 touchdown passes, including one to linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts, Brady’s 540th career TD pass, moving him past Peyton Manning on the all-time list.
The second score gave New England a 24-20 lead, their first of the day, and with 3:53 left in the game, the Patriots just needed to stop the Dolphins once to wipe away a day of struggles, but they could not do their job.
On a 13-play, 75-yard drive, Ryan Fitzpatrick walked those lowly Dolphins down the field, and gave Miami a 27-24 lead with 24 seconds to go.
The Patriots could not get within field goal range, and the last play of the game was a failed lateral bonanza, quite the opposite of the Miami Miracle a year ago.
It was an awesome game for Miami, who finished 2019 5-11 after a 0-7 start, and for former Patriots assistant Brian Flores, the future looks bright.
For a Patriots defense that played so dominant this season (least points allowed in the Brady/Belichick Era), it was that unit that seemed to break down when it mattered most, which will only fuel the narrative that they are a weak group that was propped up by inferior opponents during the first half of the season.
The offense looked bland again, and even though they had moments of moving the ball and actually scored 24+ points for the third straight week, there was something to be desired. Julian Edelman seemed to be limited due to the long list of injuries he’s had all season, and finished the day with 3 catches for 26 yards, finishing his season with 100 receptions and 1117 yards (the latter a career high). No Patriot had more than 3 catches today. Outside of Edelman and James White (72 catches, 645 receiving yards), no other Patriot had more than 30 receptions or 400 receiving yards on the season.
The ground game looked solid, running for 135 yards on 27 carries, the team’s 6th straight week with 90+ rushing yards (5 out of the 6 games the team eclipsed 100). Sony Michel finished the day with 18 carries for 74 yards and a score. He’ll finish 2019 with 912 yards on the ground (3.7 Y/A). There seems to be reason to trust this group in January.
N’Keal Harry had a carry today, but only received 4 touches during the day for 38 yards (9 rushing, 28 receiving), leaving fans wondering why he can’t get the ball even more.
Rex Burkhead had 6 carries for 48 yards, further making a case he should receive the ball more often moving forward.
Overall, this game will leave Patriots fans with more questions than answers. Even at 12 wins, something the team has done 13 times the past 17 seasons, having to play a Wild Card game is a foreign concept to many, and this includes players, career Patriots, on the roster (see: Devin McCourty). The team went 4-4 their final 8 games of 2019, losing to the other three AFC division champions, plus Miami.
During the Brady/Belichick Era, the Patriots are 3-6 against teams they lost one game to in the regular season, with their last win coming against the New York Jets in 2006 (note: the Patriots also beat the Jets once in the regular season in 2006). In terms of facing teams a second time after losing the first match, New England is 2-5 during the Brady/Belichick Era, with the last win being the 2004 AFC Championship Game.
If New England is to advance to the Divisional Round, they would face the Kansas City Chiefs, and anything further would mean facing Baltimore, Houston, or Buffalo. Three teams the Patriots lost to, but one they beat twice… Go Bills!
Next week the Patriots will be playing their 4th game of the Brady/Belichick Era in the Wild Card Round. During this time, the team is 2-1, with their most recent appearance (2009) being a 33-14 loss at home against the Baltimore Ravens.
One positive note: they did not face their opponent, the Tennessee Titans, in the regular season. In 18 games in this era where they Patriots face a team in the playoffs the didn’t see in the regular season, they are 17-1!
The road seems long, and the late season slide seems worrisome, but allow me to point you toward the 2006 New England Patriots. That team allowed 237 points, now the second least amount of points in the Brady/Belichick Era. They went 12-4, and featured an offense with a lack of weapons compared to years past, as the leading receiver on the team was Reche Caldwell, who had 61 receptions for 760 yards. This group had a more balanced offensive attack, as Corey Dillon ran for 812 yards and Laurence Maroney ran for 745 yards.
Tom Brady was 319 for 516 (61.8%) on the year, with 3529 passing yards (6.8 Y/A), 24 TDs and 12 INTs, with a passer rating of 87.9.
This past season, Brady finished 373 for 613 (60.2%), 4057 passing yards (6.6 Y/A), 24 TDs and 8 INTs, with a passer rating of 87.3.
The 2006 squad, the 4th seed in the AFC, hosted the New York Jets in the Wild Card round, and won 37-16. They proceeded to face the first seed in the AFC, the 14-2 San Diego Chargers, who boasted the best offense in the NFL and league MVP LaDanian Tomlinson. New England trailed 21-13 late in the 4th quarter, and a Brady interception seemed to end the game, but receiver Troy Brown proceeded to strip the ball from defensive back Marlon McCree, giving the Patriots the ball back, and hope. The Patriots scored a touchdown, and during their next position were able to kick a field goal and take a 24-21 lead. The Chargers missed a game-tying field goal, and suddenly New England was in the AFC Championship Game.
There they went to Indianapolis to face the Colts, a team that beat them in the regular season. New England took an early 21-3 lead, and were winning 21-6 at the half. No, there is no happy ending here. The Patriots lost 38-34 in a stunning comeback by Indy, and did not make the Super Bowl.
However, they were not expected to even make it this far. The offense seemed limited and carried by the defense, but the team got into position where they were a few late game mistakes away from appearing in the Super Bowl.
Like this year’s team, that group had many veterans that had won multiple Super Bowls. Players such as Brady, Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison. This year you have a team with guys like Brady, Edelman, James White, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung (and others) that have traveled that path to the top many times.
This team will still get a chance to play a playoff game at home next week, and when the Patriots play at home during the Brady/Belichick Era, they are 19-3.
The past will not dictate what happens next week, but remember, many guys in the room have been here before, and won in the process.
If the season ends next week, we can analyze what went wrong then. For now, even if it seems crazy, I still trust the coach and QB who have figured out a way to win so often when the playoffs come calling to do so at least next week. The road will not be easy, but this group deserves the benefit of the doubt to figure something out. Even if they can’t, at least be thankful for all the good moments we’ve had under this duo, because they aren’t getting any younger. With Brady a free agent this offseason, there will be moments of doubt regarding his future as a Patriot, as true or untrue as they could be. For Belichick, one day he’ll hang the headset up for good. It will never be as good as it’s been since 2001 once they’re gone, and even if this season has been aggravating at times, keep some perspective: they’re 12-4 and will be in the postseason, with a chance to win a 7th Super Bowl. It’s okay to doubt this group, but just remember how cool it is that they’re still here, all these years later….
Because it’s pretty damn special.
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