For the first time in 10 years, the New England Patriots have failed to clinch a first-round bye. On Sunday, hosting the Miami Dolphins and needing a win to bypass their 10th consecutive wild-card weekend, the Patriots were 16-point favorites but lost 27-24. It was Miami’s first win in New England since a 2008 game when the Dolphins unveiled the wildcat offense. After winning against the Chargers on Sunday afternoon, the Chiefs leapfrogged the Patriots for the AFC’s no. 2 seed, locking the Patriots into the no. 3 seed and giving New England its longest route to the Super Bowl since 2009.
More shocking than the Dolphins’ win is the way it happened: Miami was just the better squad and Brian Flores outcoached his mentor, Bill Belichick. The same team that was annihilated by the Patriots 43-0 in Week 2 moved the ball better on this Patriots defense than nearly any offense this year. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 28 of 41 passes for 320 yards (7.8 yards per attempt) and a touchdown, becoming the first quarterback all year to pass for 300 yards against the Patriots. (New England was the only team that had not allowed a 300-yard passer; 27 teams had allowed a 300-yard performance through the air by Week 4.) Miami receiver DeVante Parker single-handedly tried to ruin cornerback Stephon Gilmore’s Defensive Player of the Year candidacy, racking up seven catches for 119 yards when lined up against Gilmore, the most a receiver has gained against Gilmore since he joined the Patriots in 2017, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. On the day, Parker had a total of eight catches for 137 yards, making him the fifth receiver to surpass 1,200 receiving yards in Dolphins history. The Dolphins unloaded all of their trick plays for this game, including two that had receiver Albert Wilson throwing passes, one of which was completed for 20 yards.
Meanwhile, the Patriots offense stalled. Tom Brady completed 16 of 29 passes for 221 yards (7.6 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns with one interception. The Patriots had some success on the ground; Sony Michel had 18 carries for 74 yards and rumbled in for a touchdown, and Rex Burkhead took just six carries for 48 yards and looked hard to tackle throughout. But none of New England’s pass-catchers stepped up. Not a single receiver finished with more than three catches. New England’s second-longest pass of the day was a 38-yard touchdown to linebacker-turned-fullback Elandon Roberts.
ELANDON ROBERTS DOES IT ALL!— Nick Mattioli (@nmattioli12) December 29, 2019
OFFENSIVE TOUCHDOWN, LET’S GO! pic.twitter.com/oMnjbBUfth
Belichick had such little confidence in New England’s offense that when the Patriots got the ball on their own 25-yard line with the game tied at 10 with a minute remaining in the first half, the Patriots ran the ball twice and let time expire.
The last time the Patriots played a wild-card game was in 2009, when the Ravens crushed the Patriots 33-14. The first-round bye has been essential to the Patriots dynasty. The Brady-Belichick Patriots have won six Super Bowls in large part due to the 13 first-round byes that put them just one home win from the final four. Now, they’ll likely have to fight through the most intimidating set of contenders the AFC’s boasted in years on the road. New England has already lost to the other top four seeds in the AFC this season.
Miami has cost the Patriots a bye or the no. 1 seed plenty of times before, including after last year’s Miami Miracle in December, but those games have come when the Patriots have visited Miami. Now the Dolphins have demoralized the Patriots in Foxborough too. New England will host the no. 6 seed, which could be the Titans, the Steelers, or, if there is a miracle, the Raiders. The Patriots may not get blown out this time around, but they are an unlikely candidate to make their ninth consecutive AFC Championship game (sneakily one of New England’s most impressive accomplishments). And if New England does make a January playoff exit, Tom Brady’s impending free agency looms large.