MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — It was the best possible scenario for the Patriots to stage yet another end-of-game comeback: Needing a touchdown to win, Tom Brady had the ball with 1:15 to play, and all three timeouts in his pocket.
But New England’s magic ran out Sunday afternoon against the Dolphins, with Brady picked off in the end zone by fresh-off-the-plane Miami safety Michael Thomas on fourth down with two seconds to play, sealing a 24-20 Dolphins’ victory.
The Patriots let a great chance to win the AFC East title, and the accompanying playoff berth, slip from their grasp. They could have won their fifth straight division title and would have taken over the top seed in the conference with the playoffs starting in three weeks.
But now they’ve made things more difficult for themselves, and also opened the door of having to play Wild-Card weekend instead of getting a bye in the first round.
“It’s obviously very disappointing. We came down here with one goal: to become division champions,” cocaptain Matthew Slater said. “We came up short. But we can’t hang our heads; we have to go out and keep working.”
New England had the better day in nearly every statistical category: the Patriots had 29 first downs to 20 for the Dolphins, converted more than 50 percent of their third-down chances (9 of 17) to just over a third for Miami (4 for 11), racked up more total yards (453 to 378), and held the ball longer (31:21 time of possession to 28:39 for Miami).
In the postgame locker room, the Patriots could only say they made plays but just didn’t make enough to win. There was no lament from Bill Belichick that New England had been outcoached or outplayed.
There was a sense they finally had fallen short after so many weeks of pulling out improbable late-game win after improbable late-game win.
Except from Brady.
In an unusually brief postgame appearance, in which he answered two questions and spoke for less than a minute, Brady was asked about the Patriots’ final possession and said simply, “We had plenty of chances all day. We make some good plays and then we make plenty of [expletive] plays.”
The Patriots’ first play of their final possession was an 11-yard gain to Danny Amendola, who had his best game as a Patriot with 10 catches for 131 yards. A 2-yard screen pass to Shane Vereen followed, but second- and third-down pass attempts to Amendola and Julian Edelman, respectively, went incomplete.
On fourth and 8, Brady and Amendola linked up for a 12-yard completion, and the pair followed with a 24-yard hook-up to put New England in Miami territory. A 12-yard pass to Edelman, who also had a big day, with 13 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown, came on third down, giving the Patriots a fresh set of downs at the Miami 19.
The Patriots took their final timeout after that play, with 27 seconds left. Essentially needing to go for the end zone, Brady first looked to Amendola near the right pylon; Amendola got his hands on the ball, but Thomas helped break up a sure TD.
Then Brady failed to connect with Edelman (twice) and Michael Hoomanawanui. The final attempt, intended for Austin Collie, was picked off by Thomas.
It was the third failed red-zone opportunity in four tries for New England, arguably the most tangible evidence of what the Patriots offense misses without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski. In six-plus games with Gronkowski, they turned 22 of 32 (68.8 percent) red-zone chances into touchdowns; in seven games without him, they’re just 10 of 26 (38.5 percent).
A first-year player out of Stanford, Thomas was with the 49ers a week ago, and was signed by the Dolphins off their practice squad Tuesday. Thomas practiced all week on the scout team, not with the top defensive players, and he is so new most of his teammates refer to him as “No. 31,” his jersey number.
But as Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill took a knee to run the final seconds off a desperately-needed win for Miami, No. 31 was the hero.
“I can’t put this into words right now,” an emotional Thomas said. “Y’all know how big it is. It’s huge to me. I’m going to remember this one for the rest of my life, but honestly, I’m just thankful my teammates were able to trust me out there and I’m ready to move on to next week.”
Second-year quarterback Tannehill was impressive on the Dolphins’ game-winning drive, overcoming a second-down sack that forced his team into a third and 16. Tannehill hit Brian Hartline for an 11-yard gain, then hit tight end Charles Clay for a 6-yard catch-and-run on fourth and 5.
The winning touchdown was a 14-yard pass to Marcus Thigpen.
“It was a play that we designed this week in practice,” Thigpen said. “The way it was supposed to work, I was supposed to go against the linebacker [Dont’a Hightower] one on one, which I did. It didn’t play out the way we wanted it to, but I went in there and made something happen and Tannehill had enough trust in me to throw it up and I caught it and made something.”
Stephen Gostkowski gave Miami an advantage to start the drive, uncharacteristically sending his kickoff out of bounds. The penalty meant the Dolphins began at their 40-yard line.
“I over-kicked it and was trying to kill the ball,” Gostkowski said. “It was not a good kick at all and my timing was terrible. It was a play that I wish I could take back and it stinks to lose and have such an effect on the game.”
Gostkowski, who has been enjoying arguably his best season, also missed a 48-yard field goal attempt wide left in the third quarter.
The Dolphins, who snapped a seven-game losing streak against New England, have won three straight games and four of five to get into playoff position. They could also find themselves in the odd position of becoming Patriots fans next week with their divisional rivals playing in Baltimore.
The Ravens are battling with the Dolphins for the second wild-card berth.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.