MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - The outcome no longer in question, Tom Brady knelt on both knees with his facemask in the turf, a beaten man. He had just thrown his second interception of the quarter, a desperate throw, defenders draped all over him. Brady, for so long an embodiment of poise, looked ready to lift himself up. Then he smashed his head to the ground.
Hours earlier, he had eased any concerns about an injured finger while the Patriots took a commanding lead. Now, he had to consider the fate of the Team of the Decade in the decade’s final month.
With their 22-21 victory yesterday over the Patriots, the Miami Dolphins may have peeled away another layer of the dynastic aura the Patriots carried for years. In the Dolphins’ locker room afterward, linebacker Joey Porter leaned close to a teammate and said, "Times have changed." The Patriots, before yesterday, had not lost three times in four games since October 2002.
"When things don’t go your way, you have to fight back," Brady said. "That’s a challenge for all of us. I think at times we do. And at times I don’t think we fight very hard."
Both the Patriots’ offense and defense had a chance to ensure Dan Carpenter’s winning field goal with 1 minute 2 seconds remaining never occurred. Charged with milking the fourth-quarter clock, the offense stalled. Charged with stopping an opponent when it meant victory, the defense wilted against Chad Henne, who threw 52 times and gained 335 yards.
For the first time since Nov. 12, 2006, the Patriots lost consecutive games, yesterday’s defeat coming on the heels of their meltdown in New Orleans. That game stripped the Patriots of their Super Bowl-caliber status. This one may have endangered their playoff status. At 7-5, they hold a one-game lead over the Dolphins and New York Jets in the AFC East.
The Patriots don’t beat good teams - only one of their defeated opponents, the 6-5 Ravens, currently owns a winning record. They don’t win on the road - they dropped to 0-5 in games played at their opponent’s stadium, their only away victory coming in London over hapless Tampa Bay.
"You have to be mentally tough to win on the road," safety Brandon Meriweather said. "And right now our team is not mentally tough like we are supposed to be."
On the first drive of the fourth quarter, the Patriots, leading, 21-19, marched to the Dolphins’ 5-yard line. With less than 10 minutes remaining, a touchdown may have sealed the game. Split wide right, rookie cornerback Vontae Davis stood across from Randy Moss, who had burned Davis on a 58-yard touchdown for the game’s first score.
"I figured Moss, Brady - they were going to try and go up top," Davis said.
Moss bolted on a fade pattern to the back corner. Brady lofted a pass lacking sufficient touch. The line drive allowed Davis to leap and intercept the ball. For the second time, the Patriots had ventured inside the Dolphins’ 10 and earned nothing. In the first half, the Dolphins stuffed Sammy Morris on fourth and 1.
"When we have those opportunities, we have to take advantage of them," coach Bill Belichick said.
After Davis’s interception, the Patriots forced a three and out. The New England offense would have the ball in the fourth quarter with a lead twice in the final 7:35. It could have worked the clock and made Miami desperate. On the two drives, the Patriots ran a total of six plays and used only 2:37.
"To have the opportunities we had and not finish is pretty disappointing," said wide receiver Wes Welker, who caught 10 passes for 167 yards. "We have a long way to go. We all need to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure things out. We need to make sure we’re doing our job the way it needs to be done."
The Patriots defense trotted on to the field at the end of the fourth quarter, the circumstances providing a threat and opportunity. The Dolphins, 74 yards from the end zone, trailed by 2 points and required only a field goal for the lead. The defense had not delivered a game-saving, identity-forging stop all season. With less than four minutes left in the game, it had another chance.
"You’re thinking, `Gotta make a play,"’ Meriweather said. "Somebody on the defense has got to step up and make a play."
Once again, no one could, and the defense continued the trend that may both define and doom the Patriots’ season. Henne, his jersey still immaculate white because the Patriots could not produce a glimmer of a pass rush, took advantage.
The biggest pass came on a fourth and 6. On the 41-yard line, Henne dropped back and surveyed the field, with plenty of time as usual. He looked right and spotted Greg Camarillo coming back on the right sideline. Behind him was Darius Butler, whom Henne targeted all game. Camarillo squeezed the pass for a 13-yard gain, Butler clinging to his back.
"He made a good play," Butler said. "The quarterback put the ball in a good spot. And he made a good catch."
After three runs to drain the clock, Carpenter jogged onto the field and booted his no-doubt-about-it 41-yard field goal. The Patriots had one last chance, which ended when Channing Crowder intercepted Brady’s last-gasp throw.
For so long, the Patriots have converted plays that won games that no one else could make, daggers that squeezed the life out of opponents or miracles that saved losses. They did things that great teams do.
Yesterday, like for so much of this season, they could not conjure of any those. They were something they rarely have been. The Patriots were normal.
"Everyone is trying to put their finger on it and really figure it out," Brady said. "It’s frustrating for all of us."