MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The closest injured tight end Rob Gronkowski came to the Patriots on Sunday was seen on a T-shirt worn by cornerback Aqib Talib, who chose a “Gronk Nation” print after the game against the Dolphins.
Gronkowski was lost for the season a week ago. Playing without him is not unprecedented, but it’s never easy, as the Patriots painfully found out in Miami.
One of Gronkowski’s strengths is helping the offense in the red zone, either by catching touchdown passes or drawing enough defensive attention to clear space for someone else.
On Sunday, the red zone was a problem area: The Patriots pushed four offensive drives inside the Dolphins’ 20-yard-line, but scored just one touchdown.
Those missed opportunities culminated in Tom Brady throwing an end-zone interception with two seconds left on fourth and 5 from the Miami 14.
The Patriots’ only turnover sealed a 24-20 loss, and denied them the chance to clinch the AFC East. That will have to wait at least another week.
“We didn’t do a good job getting into the red zone, and we didn’t do a good job of finishing drives,” said Brady, who threw for 364 yards but needed to sling it 55 times. “We had plenty of chances all day.”
Without Gronkowski to target, Brady favored two other possession receivers. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola were the intended targets on 33 of Brady’s 55 attempts, and combined for 23 of his 34 completions. Both receivers had a 10-100 day: Edelman caught 13 balls for 139 yards and a touchdown, and Amendola had 10 catches for 131 yards.
The only other receiving touchdown might have been the play of the day for the Patriots, with Michael Hoomanawanui — getting many of the tight end snaps that would go to Gronkowski — hauling in a 13-yard pass from Brady.
Hoomanawanui’s first touchdown as a Patriot was a scintillating one-handed grab near the back of the end zone.
“Just staying alive, making a play. Tom put it pretty much in a perfect spot, and I was able to make a play,” said Hoomanawanui, who had the only reception of the game by a Patriots tight end, since Matthew Mulligan was held without one and D.J. Williams was inactive. “But I’d trade it in for a win.”
Edelman, Amendola, and Hoomanawanui all factored into the Patriots’ final drive, when they needed to go 80 yards with 1:15 left and all three timeouts in their pocket.
Amendola had three catches on the drive, including a clutch grab that went for 12 yards on fourth and 8. Edelman caught a 12-yard pass that brought the ball to the Dolphins’ 19 with 27 seconds left.
The pass to Edelman ended up being Brady’s final completion.
He tried to connect with Edelman twice more in the end zone, then threw a pass for Hoomanawanui that was a touch high. Still, it was a ball the tight end thought he should have caught.
“Can’t have excuses. I believe if you touch the ball, you catch the ball, so I should have caught it,” Hoomanawanui said.
That left it up to one final play, the 15th snap of the game (not counting field goals) the Patriots would take inside the red zone. This one ended like 13 of the previous 14: No touchdown.
Two Gronk-sized drives ended in field goals for the Patriots. Their first possession of the game took 16 plays and covered 83 yards, but resulted in only a 22-yard make by Stephen Gostkowski. The first drive of the fourth quarter was similar: 15 plays, 81 yards, ending with a 23-yarder.
Chances? There were plenty.
“It’s all pretty disappointing, especially [because] you feel like you had enough chances to win the game, and not just that last drive. But throughout the game we had multiple chances in the red area and just didn’t get an enough touchdowns,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “We had plenty of chances to win. I felt like we were always moving the ball until a certain point where then we wouldn’t make any plays or we’d make a mistake that would kill the drive.
“It was just one of those days where you’d get going, and then either they’d stop you or you’d stop yourself. And I kind of felt like we were stopping ourselves today.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.