Not even a little luck could prevent the Patriots from losing to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon, eliminating New England from playoff contention for the first time since 2008.
“We all just came up short,” coach Bill Belichick said after the 21-12 defeat. “To win these games, we got to do a better job. I got to do a better job, and collectively, as a staff and a team, we just got to perform better than this.”
Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sealed the victory with a 1-yard touchdown run that gave Miami a two-possession lead with 3:17 remaining. But, before the Dolphins secured that 10-point advantage, the game seemed within reach, thanks to two plays initially ruled in Miami’s favor that were called back.
“Every play counted,” said cornerback J.C. Jackson. “Every snap counted.”
Fighting for a first down late in the second quarter, quarterback Cam Newton tried to stiff-arm Dolphins safety Brandon Jones, only for Jones to knock the football from Newton. The loose ball bounced into the arms of cornerback Xavien Howard, who easily returned the ball 86 yards for a touchdown.
Upon further review, however, officials overturned the score. The replay showed the ball, on its way into Howard’s waiting hands, hit the leg of Dolphins defensive end Christian Wilkins, whose foot was on the sideline. Because an out-of-bounds player touched the ball before Howard gained possession, the Patriots avoided a crucial turnover, what would have been Newton’s 12th of the season.
Instead, New England maintained possession at the spot where Wilkins stepped on the sideline. Kicker Nick Folk proceeded to knock a 36-yard field goal through the uprights to give the Patriots a 6-0 lead. Crisis averted.
Later, in the third quarter, the Patriots once again caught a break.
Leading 7-6, with the ball on New England’s 44-yard line, the Dolphins looked ready to punt on a fourth and 7. But punter Matt Haack ended up keeping the ball and lofting a pass to linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill. The successful 14-yard reception was enough for the first down, bringing the Dolphins to New England’s 30-yard line.
The gain was called back, though, because Grugier-Hill did not report as an eligible receiver. The penalty backed up the Dolphins 5 yards, and forced them to actually punt. Crisis seemingly averted, again.
Those fortunate moments were still not enough to secure a victory.
“We didn’t play up to our strengths,” Jackson said. “We didn’t play to our advantage. We made some bad plays. And they made some great plays and they capitalized. They capitalized better than we did.”
Added Newton: “This whole season has kind of been the tale of coming just a tad bit short. Call it however you want to.”
The Patriots could only tally field goals, while the Dolphins ran all over New England’s defense for 250 yards on the ground. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Dolphins averaged 3.6 yards per carry. Against the Patriots? They averaged 6.0 yards.
New England also lost several important statistical battles, including third-down efficiency, total yards, time of possession, and red-zone drives.
With that type of underperformance, two lucky breaks certainly won’t cut it.
“We didn’t do anything really well enough to win the game,” Belichick said. “We just didn’t coach well enough. Missed opportunities. Miami was just better than we were today.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.