MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Dolphins fans were partying from Palmetto Bay to Pompano Beach and all points in between Sunday night, celebrating their club’s latest conquest over the Patriots.
The Patriots fans who made the trek from New England and the transplants who now call South Florida home — and whose fannies occupied about half of the seats at Hard Rock Stadium? They had reason to party, too. Their team is heading to the playoffs.
The Patriots players, however, could not share in the good times as they struggled for answers following their third loss in four games.
Stung by another slow start and ultimately done in by a turnovers and penalties — all bugaboos at various points during this campaign — the Patriots fell to the Dolphins, 33-24, in the regular-season finale.
“Bad football,’’ said safety Devin McCourty. “Bad complementary football and then you look up and you’re in a hole. You fall behind, 17-0, in the playoffs and it’s going to be a long day. We can’t play like that.’’
The Dolphins, who finished 9-8 but without a playoff date — scored on their first possession — and the Patriots first, too — to race to a 14-0 lead before most had finished applying their sunblock.
Tua Tagovailoa carved the Patriots up on the first march thanks to his old Alabama buddy, Jaylen Waddle, who set a record and set the tone for the game.
Waddle broke the rookie record for receptions held by Anquan Bolden with a 5-yard catch on the fourth play of the game, then scored on 7-yard catch on the 13th play for a quick 7-0 lead.
Waddle went in motion, then sped by J.C. Jackson. Though Tua’s toss was high, Waddle skied, snagged, and toe-tapped to complete the play.
“Lot of poor execution, poor playing, poor coaching,’’ Bill Belichick said when asked about Miami’s quick strike.
Waddle had four catches for 25 yards on the march and never caught another pass. He finished the season with 104 receptions.
The next Dolphins pass was caught by Xavien Howard and it came out of the hands of Mac Jones.
On a third and 1, Howard stepped in front of Jones pass intended for Jakobi Meyers and brought it back 37 yards, turning and doing a backflip into the end zone to double the Dolphins lead at 14-0.
Howard was lined up with Nelson Agholor but quickly rerouted him and then switched to Meyers. After the pick, only Jones stood in his way and the franchise quarterback did the right thing and let him go.
“I knew what coverage they were playing — Cover 2 — and I just threw it too wide,’’ said Jones. “I’ve got to do a better job getting it to the right guy.’’
The Dolphins upped it to 17-0 on a 30-yard Jason Sanders field goal on a drive that was extended when Brandon Bolden was called for a questionable personal foul for hitting punter Michael Palardy on a fake attempt. Replays appeared to show Bolden did not make contact with Palardy’s head.
The Patriots (10-7) finally started to show signs of life when Jones hit Hunter Henry on a 35-yard connection as the tight sneaked past the defense to key a 74-yard drive capped by Bolden’s 15-yard run to cut it to 17-7, where it stood at the break.
After getting within 17-10, the Dolphins scored 10 straight points on a Duke Johnson 1-yard run – set up by a ticky-tack pass interference call on Jalen Mills in the end zone — and a Sanders 49-yard field goal to go up 27-10.
In between those two drives was a botched snap and a lost fumble between Ted Karras, who was temporarily filling in at center for David Andrews, and Jones at the Dolphins’ 23.
“I’ve been taking snaps since Pop Warner,’’ said a frustrated Jones. “That was my fault.’’
If there was a silver lining to all those gray clouds hovering over South Florida, it was how Jones again responded to adversity. He was lights-out in the fourth quarter.
The rookie was 9 of 9 for 118 yards and touchdown in leading a pair of scoring drives to Patriots within 27-24 with just under three minutes left.
“He’s a hell of a football player,’’ said Bolden. “He didn’t quit.’’
New England wasn’t able to get the ball back until there was just three ticks left and they were at their own 2, setting the stage for another whacky ending in this place.
Jones passed to Meyers, who tried to lateral, but it was picked off by Sam Eguavoen who scored a touchdown on what was technically a fumble recovery.
Game over. Season still going.
The Patriots have another date on the calendar and Bolden is looking forward to it.
“It’s not over. There’s no reason to lay down,’’ he said. “We have a lot to fight for. We’ll go into next and, of course you have treat it like it might be your last, but I’m going to fight like hell to have more football because that’s the type of player I am.’’
Jones, too, was ready to flush the finale and move on.
“We’ve got a great opportunity next week and that’s all you can ask for,’’ he said.