The scales of football justice tipped back to even for the Patriots on Sunday in Miami. The balance between truth and fairness restored at their expense.
The truth is the Patriots are a resilient, confident, AFC championship-capable team that wins close games because of situational execution and institutional winning. But play enough close games, and the officiating calls and good fortune tend to even out as cosmic fair play.
The Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium was not a harbinger of doom for the Patriots. I’m still making no plans for the week of the AFC title game. But it was a reminder that these Patriots have a margin for error that is straight out of the Gillette World Shaving Headquarters in South Boston — razor thin.
This is the way it’s going to be the rest of the way because the Patriots don’t have enough of their impact players to pull away, so they’re just going to have to keep pulling games out.
Following the loss to the Dolphins, Tom Brady was unusually brusque and profane in his post-game State of the Quarterback address. TB12 was more profound on Monday in his weekly chat on WEEI.
“We just all have to do a better job, because our margin of error is very slim,” said Brady. “We can’t make any mistakes. . . . If we have plays that are there to be made, then I’ve got to throw it and hit it. We’ve got to come up with them.
“We’re not winning by 30 points. Every game comes down to the end.”
After Sunday’s games, the Patriots’ average margin of victory (7.6 points) was the second-lowest among teams in the league with a winning record, according to STATS, Inc. Miami has won its games by an average margin of 7.13 points per game.
The Patriots are 6-1 in games decided by 3 points or fewer this season. The only team that has played more than two such games and has a higher winning percentage is the Green Bay Packers (3-0-1).
No team in the NFL has won more games decided by 8 points or fewer than the Patriots, who are 7-4 in such games.
These Patriots have a size zero-waist margin of error because their offense is simply not as prolific as in the past and their defense is melting away like a wax candle.
If they don’t force turnovers or get a Vulcan mind meld from Bill Belichick to trip up the other team they can’t make significant stops.
The Patriots have come full circle and not in a good way.
It’s a shame because Belichick finally built a defense that could restore balance to the Patriots, an excellent defense that carried the team in the first quarter of the season, only to see it ripped apart at the seams by injuries and reduced to its former state.
Entering Monday, the Patriots had slipped to 24th in the NFL in total defense and 29th in third-down defense.
Dont’a Hightower played for FOB (Friend of Bill) Nick Saban at Alabama, where versatility was one of his hallmarks. But in the NFL he has gone from versatile to turnstile, simply not quick enough to cover running backs, as was proven on the game-winning touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to Marcus Thigpen.
It’s not the kid’s fault. He’s doing his best, but he’s being asked to play a role for which he is hopelessly unsuited.
Brady’s frustration Sunday didn’t seem to be just about the inability to score the winning points on the final drive. It seemed to be blowing off steam from a season in which he has been asked to do more with less.
Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending knee injury has put even more onus on Brady to compensate for not having the weapons to execute the Patriots’ tried and true outwit-and-outscore strategy.
In the six full games they had Gronk, the Patriots converted 19 of 28 red zone opportunities into touchdowns. They were 1 for 4 against Miami.
There is help on the way. Rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins look like they’re on the verge of returning to the lineup. Dobson has quietly had the best rookie season of any Patriots wide receiver in the Belichick era.
Dobson already has more receiving yards (492) and touchdowns (four) than the gold standard for neophyte New England wideouts, Deion Branch, had in his 2002 rookie season.
Thompkins, just the type of physical playmaker Brady could have used on the final drive Sunday, isn’t far behind Dobson. He has 466 yards and four scores.
What could also improve Brady’s margin for error would be if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could use his fertile football imagination to find a way to get Stevan Ridley on the field with Shane Vereen.
It’s puzzling that Ridley, one of the team’s few dynamic offensive weapons with Gronk out, played just 13 of 81 offensive snaps on Sunday, while James Develin and Matthew Mulligan played 28 and 20 snaps, respectively.
If McDaniels could make Matt Cassel, who hadn’t started a football game since high school, into an 11-win quarterback in 2008 throwing the ball sideways, he can devise a way to use Ridley and Vereen in concert.
We tend to fixate on the Patriots’ flaws, but every other contender in the AFC has them.
Denver can’t defend the pass. The Colts are prone to slow starts and can’t run the ball. Kansas City doesn’t have enough passing-game firepower. Cincinnati is . . . well, still the Bengals.
The Patriots’ margin for error is smaller than it has been in the past.
Expecting to pull out every close game by divine right or Kraft family decree simply isn’t realistic.
But winning the close ones isn’t just the Patriot Way. It’s the only way for these Patriots.