MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — There were three factors Sunday to explain the Patriots’ 24-20 loss and why the defense couldn’t stop Ryan Tannehill in the fourth quarter.
The one factor the Patriots were willing to concede — the Dolphins simply made more plays down the stretch. They faced a third-and-16 on their 34, but Tannehill completed his next five passes for 55 yards to bring the Dolphins inside the red zone in the final two minutes. Included in that stretch was an incredible catch-and-run by Charles Clay, who slipped past Logan Ryan, Devin McCourty, Dane Fletcher, and Steve Gregory to barely convert a fourth-and-5; an amazing toe-tapping sideline catch by Rishard Matthews for 24 yards; and the clincher, a 14-yard catch-and-run by former college sprinter Marcus Thigpen, who burned past 270-pound Dont’a Hightower for the game-winning score.
Tannehill threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and led an impressive final drive.
“They just wanted it more. They made more plays than we did,” cornerback Kyle Arrington said.
“Hats off to them,” Chandler Jones said.
The Patriots, who have played a lot more zone coverage in recent weeks, were playing “pure man, all game,” Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline said. And unlike in the first matchup in Week 8, when the Patriots erased a 17-3 lead to win, 27-17, the Dolphins won a lot more one-on-one matchups this time. The Patriots paid extra attention to Clay, who had two touchdowns the previous week against Pittsburgh but just one catch for 6 yards Sunday. Mike Wallace (105 yards and a touchdown), Hartline (70 yards), and Matthews (64 yards) stepped up in his place.
“They committed some resources to Charles Clay, obviously, so it opened up some things for some other guys,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said.
But of course, it wasn’t just desire or “want to” that snapped the Patriots’ three-game winning streak.
The second factor was the halftime adjustments. The Patriots, in erasing three straight double-digit deficits, usually come out on top in that department. But the Dolphins got the better of them.
One key adjustment came in the Dolphins’ offensive line protection.
The Dolphins scored just 7 points in the first half, while Tannehill took three sacks. The Patriots were attacking Miami’s rookie left guard Sam Brenner, a former practice squader who has been called up to take the place of suspended guard Richie Incognito.
Two of the Patriots’ three sacks in the first half were based around Brenner — one for Jones, who was lined up over left tackle Bryant McKinnie, and one for defensive tackle Joe Vellano, who lined up across from Brenner.
Brenner was “jump-setting” out of his stance — jumping off the line of scrimmage to try to neutralize Vellano, a tactic generally used for short, quick passes. But Jones and Vellano ran a lot of stunts — criss-crossing paths en route to the quarterback — and were able to catch Brenner off guard.
“They were looking at the guard to see how he was setting,” McKinnie said. “I had to give my guard a heads-up because they were running stunts and doing things based off of how he was setting, and just had to make him aware of it.
“You can take up two blockers if he can catch Brenner off guard. I had to keep telling him to step back vertically, instead of jump-setting.”
The Patriots got only one sack in the second half after Brenner changed his technique. And Tannehill was more comfortable in the pocket, completing 13 of 18 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
Tannehill threw for only 192 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions in the first meeting, a 27-17 comeback for the Patriots in Foxborough. But he was nearly perfect Sunday, throwing for 312 yards, three touchdowns and a season-high 120.6 passer rating.
“We have a lot of confidence in our guy. He has a real moxie about himself, and he knows we always have a chance,” said Wallace, who had a team-high six receptions. “I think we made good adjustments this time, and kept it going. Our guys stayed poised.”
The third factor, which the Patriots were loathe to admit, was that the South Florida heat probably got to them in the fourth quarter.
“Football is made for outdoors, so it’s never an excuse for anything,” Arrington said. “No matter what the fourth quarter brings in any type of climate, with the AFC East on the line, I said, ‘Guys, you know, all in. Give it all you have.’ ”
Before Sunday, the Patriots had played one game above 70 degrees all season – a 72-degree night against the Jets in Week 2.
The temperature at kickoff Sunday was 84 degrees, with humidity at 70 percent. It’s the Dolphins’ best home-field advantage, and why they force visiting teams to wear their dark, heat-absorbing uniforms (like the Patriots did with their navy jerseys).
“How do you guys live down here?” Logan Mankins joked to a Florida reporter in the locker room.
Patriots players on both sides of the ball looked gassed in the fourth quarter, and a few Dolphins players said as much.
“I think so. I heard a couple people say it was hot out there,” Wallace said.
McKinnie said the heat “definitely” affected the Patriots, who had large misting stations on the benches. He said with a laugh that Jones seemed to fake an injury late in the third to give his teammates a breather.
“He jumped up and basically jogged off the field. It’s like, what was wrong with you?” McKinnie said. “You laid there for a minute, they brought you water and then you jogged off the field. I said, ‘I’m pretty sure he’s coming right back in,’ and he came in like two plays later. So I’ve seen that one.”
There’s no shame in losing to a suddenly-hot Dolphins team that has won three straight and spent the entire offseason building a roster specifically to beat the Patriots (particularly on defense, where they added more pass rushers and more aggressive linebackers to deal with Rob Gronkowski). The Patriots’ defense has suffered a lot of tough injuries this season, and even with the heat and the depleted roster, the Patriots were still just one completion from pulling off another comeback.
But for the first time in awhile, it was the Patriots not making halftime adjustments, and talking about being out-executed.
Sometimes, as Jones said, you just have to tip your hat to the opponent.