After three quarters of football between the Patriots and Dolphins, Monday night’s script looked decidedly unoriginal. The Patriots had their butts kicked across 45 minutes by a team from the southeast. With the ball in Tom Brady’s hands, the Pats would inevitably overcome a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit, because that’s how this works. It wasn’t a matter of if the Patriots would come back and win, but when.
But unlike they had in the Super Bowl, Brady and Bill Belichick couldn’t conjure their mysterious blood magic. The throws never connected, the touchdowns never rained, and the inexplicable mistakes from the other sideline never happened. Without that dark force in New England’s employ, the Dolphins won, 27-20, in a game that easily could have been 45-20.
The Pats’ offense was MIA in Miami. New England finished without a third-down conversion for the first time since 1991 and had seven three-and-outs. The Patriots finished with a season-low in rushing yards (25) and total yards (248) and posted their second-lowest point total of the season. When Miami kicked a field goal to go up 3-0 on its opening drive, it marked the first time the Patriots had trailed since before Halloween—a span covering more than 290 minutes of game time.
Brady finished 24-of-43 for 233 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. His 59.5 passer rating was his worst since 2013—and worse than the 59.9 he posted in 2014 against the Chiefs, a performance that prompted the infamous “Will the quarterback position be evaluated?” question.
The loss snaps streaks of eight consecutive wins, seven consecutive wins against the AFC East, and 14 straight road wins for New England. Brady is now 7-9 in his career in Miami.
The much-maligned Patriots' defense, which had seemed to turn a corner in recent weeks, wasn’t much better. New England managed to sack Jay Cutler just twice, and those were its only two quarterback hits of the game. Cutler looked reborn, finishing 25-of-38 for 263 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. That line could have been 363 yards and four touchdowns if not for some drops from his receivers.
The Pats were certainly hampered without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was suspended after a hit on Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White in Week 13, but the team entered Monday 20-5 in games without Gronk, and his absence can’t explain the entire team disappearing.
As Belichick said after the game, “[extended silence]”
The Dolphins deserve their due, and not just for slaying the Evil Empire. Sophomore cornerback Xavien Howard nabbed two spectacular deep interceptions while helping to limit Brandin Cooks to one catch for 38 yards on seven targets. Miami running back Kenyan Drake had his way, gashing the Pats’ defense as he danced through holes all night en route to 114 rushing yards. Miami is now 6-7 and has two games left against Buffalo, which is currently is slotted into the final wild-card spot, meaning Cutler and the Dolphins have a puncher’s chance at making the playoffs. (Wait, what?)
The Patriots, meanwhile, are probably already doing wind sprints from South Florida to Foxborough as penance to Belichick. New England drops to 10-3 and heads to Pittsburgh next week in a game that could decide home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Gronk’s return will certainly help the Pats revive their third-down offense, but he can’t do it alone. The team that was just steamrolled by Jay Cutler, Kenyan Drake, and Jarvis Landry might be in for a reckoning against Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown.
The Patriots are the Patriots are the Patriots and we should know better by now than to take a one-off late-season loss as a harbinger of things to come. But while it’s tempting to write this off as an aberration, Belichick won’t. The Patriots will regain their magic—probably—but Monday night was a reminder of just how human they can be.