FOXBOROUGH - There were surreal moments and fitting misplays, and there was an ending that only could happen to a bad football team.
The Patriots’ 27-24 season-ending loss to the AFC East champion Miami Dolphins yesterday was perfect for a season that ended with a 5-11 record.
“Three points. That was the difference between the last-place team [Patriots] and the first-place team [Dolphins]. That’s how the entire season went,” said New England defensive tackle Chad Eaton.
“All that [expletive] that happened . . . we should have won the football game. This stuff has happened to us all season,” Eaton said.
It took 35 minutes between the penultimate play of the game and Michael Bishop’s final, unsuccessful (and wobbly) Hail Mary pass.
After Olindo Mare kicked a 49-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining to give the Dolphins a 27-24 lead, and for all intents and purposes the division title, the Patriots got the ball at their 40 with seven seconds left.
Quarterback Drew Bledsoe’s last play, ruled a fumble and an illegal forward pass, sent players to the locker rooms as time expired.
But after the long delay, referee Johnny Grier said a replay showed the last play was an incompletion and three seconds remained.
Some players were already showering, were untaped, and were out of uniform.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the officials originally told him they would not play the final seconds because of safety issues, but they changed their minds. When the teams lined up again, Bishop rolled to his left and threw off-balance toward Terry Glenn at around the 30-yard line. Glenn couldn’t come up with it, and the game, and season, ended, witnessed by only about 100 fans who had stayed until the end.
But even with the strange ending, the Patriots shot themselves in the foot on plenty of earlier plays. It was a season in which almost every Patriot was never far from an unsuccessful play.
Jermaine Wiggins has been here only since Nov. 28, but his bad mistake came with 3:14 remaining in the third quarter when he got past the Dolphins’ secondary, heading for the goal line on a long reception. But a horrible thing happened on the way to putting the Patriots ahead, 31-17. He dropped the ball.
It was actually stripped from him from behind by linebacker Derrick Rodgers, who had been beaten on the play by Wiggins. As he approached the 26-yard line, Rodgers got one hand on Wiggins’s left shoulder and whacked the ball loose with his other hand. The ball popped loose some 20 yards into the end zone, where Miami defender Brock Marion fell on it for a touchback.
“I should have been thinking, `Hold the ball,’ but I couldn’t even sense he was there,” said Wiggins. “I was getting ready to put two hands on it.”
It was the Patriots’ longest pass play of the season, 59 yards, but, as Wiggins noted, “It didn’t go for nothing when you fumble.”
There were other low moments.
Ahead, 14-3, after Bledsoe’s 52-yard pass to Kevin Faulk with 8:16 remaining in the second quarter, the Patriots did their best to give it away.
Bledsoe, who had his first 300-plus-yard throwing game of the season, threw a screen intended for Faulk
into the hands of Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor with 5:11 remaining in the half. Miami took over at the Patriot 12. Bledsoe had thrown 129 passes without an interception, but this one allowed Miami to cut the lead to 14-10 when Jay Fiedler connected with seldom-thrown-to tight end Hunter Goodwin from 9 yards out.
After New England went three and out, punter Lee Johnson fumbled the snap from Lonie Paxton and had his attempt blocked by Marion. Twan Russell recovered at the Patriot 9.
Aided by an interference call on Lawyer Milloy, the Dolphins scored in three plays, Lamar Smith notching his 13th touchdown on a 1-yard run with 2:13 remaining in the half.
But the Patriots, who were playing without suspended cornerback Ty Law, ended the half with a 21-17 lead when they marched 80 yards in 10 plays. There was a pass of 25 yards from Bledsoe to Glenn, and another of 16 yards to Troy Brown, on the drive. There also was a costly holding call on Miami All-Pro cornerback Sam Madison, who was all over Glenn, which brought the ball to the Miami 16.
On the next play, Glenn made a nice diving catch on the left side of the end zone with three seconds remaining to give the Patriots a lead.
“We had the momentum at that point,” said Glenn. “We went into halftime feeling good because we overcame some mistakes and took the lead. How we ever lost this game, I don’t know. But it’s a sign of a team that has to get its act together.”
New England even increased the lead to 24-17 on Adam Vinatieri’s 33-yard field goal in the third quarter. But the tide soon turned.
The Dolphins drove from their 35 for the tying score in the fourth quarter. The big play came when the Patriots were unable to hold the Dolphins on a third and 15 from their 30 on a 15-yard pass from Fiedler to Jed Weaver. Tony George, Antonio Langham, and Larry Whigham had a chance to make a play and didn’t. Smith scored from 1 yard out to create the tie.
With 4:09 left, Bledsoe was intercepted just two plays into a drive that began at the New England 40. His pass to Brown was tipped by Robert Jones into the hands of Zach Thomas at the Miami 24.
“I thought we were going to move the ball down into field goal territory,” said Bledsoe. “I had a good feeling.”
But this is not the era of good Patriot feelings.
The Dolphins moved steadily downfield, converting two third-down plays. The Patriots gave too much ground, leaving too much room for Mare.
“It is always disappointing when you don’t win it all,” said Bledsoe. “This one was particularly taxing.”
And very strange, indeed.