Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .
The Patriots were again a mess in Miami, which has become an aggravating tradition. They’re 2-9 on the Dolphins’ turf in December and January during the Bill Belichick era.
This loss bookended the season-opening loss, with the Patriots falling behind early, playing uphill all day, and failing to get a needed stop late to pull off a comeback. And the most damning familiarity in their third loss in the last four games? Once again, they played mistake-laden, sloppy football.
They started lethargically with 22 total yards in the first quarter, couldn’t stop the run when they needed to most, committed eight penalties, and Mac Jones made the kind of rookie mistakes that have plagued him more as the season has gone on.
Familiar, yes. But not good.
Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .
THREE PLAYERS WHO WERE WORTH WATCHING
(Players suggested in Unconventional Preview: Jaylen Waddle, Rhamondre Stevenson, Jakobi Meyers.)
Brandon Bolden: While Meyers and Hunter Henry had their moments, Bolden was probably the Patriots’ most reliable offensive player, which is both a tribute to him and an indictment of how many of his teammates performed. Bolden scored the Patriots’ first touchdown with a nifty 15-yard run midway through the second quarter when they were already down 17 points. And he scored their second in their unfulfilled quest to catch up, catching a Jones pass in the flat and taking it 18 yards to cut the Dolphins lead to 27-17 with just under 7 minutes left. Bolden also had a 19-yard run right before Jones’s crushing fumble late in the third quarter, and finished with 66 yards and two touchdowns on nine touches.
The final statistics confirm the Patriots ran the ball effectively, gaining 134 yards on 27 attempts, or 5 yards per carry. But wasn’t the running back usage kind of weird? Damien Harris had a team-high 11 carries and scored their final touchdown, but he was in and out of the lineup all day. Stevenson left after taking a hit in the first quarter, returned, got his first three carries early in the third for a total of 28 yards . . . and then got one more carry the rest of the game.
Duke Johnson: The Dolphins came in with the NFL’s 31st-ranked rush attack, averaging 85.6 yards per game. Johnson, who was added to the active roster in December after spending much of the season on the practice squad, blew past that himself, gaining 117 of Miami’s 195 rushing yards. Johnson had a long run of 27 yards midway through the third quarter — Matthew Judon, who has looked like late-career Chris Slade recently, failed to set the edge — and a few minutes later scampered in from the 1 immediately following a pass interference penalty on Jalen Mills.
Ja’Whaun Bentley: As noted, the Dolphins had success running the ball, but when the Patriots did stop the ground game, it was usually due to Bentley making a play. He finished with 17 tackles, including 10 in the first half, with Dont’a Hightower out of the lineup.
GRIEVANCE OF THE GAME
I mean, the entirety of the Patriots’ performance should leave fans with one giant grievance. But frankly, my personal grievance is with something else: CBS rules expert Gene Steratore’s ridiculous hemming-and-hawing on the broadcast after a clearly terrible unnecessary roughness call on Bolden when the Dolphins ran a fake punt in the first quarter.
Replay showed Bolden did not touch Dolphins punter Michael Palardy at the end of the play. But when CBS called upon Steratore, he equivocated, saying: “That play is a very difficult play to referee in real time. I would have like to have seen a pass on the play, but it’s a difficult play to officiate in live action.”
Way to take a stand, Gene. If these rules experts are going to look at a botched call and tell us how hard officiating is rather than what we can see with our own eyes, what’s the point of asking them at all?
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa versus the Patriots run defense
As it turned out, the rusher the Patriots had to stop, and too often couldn’t, was Tagovailoa. The Patriots held him to just 109 yards passing, including 17 in the second half, but he broke their backs with a couple of crucial third-down runs. On third-and-6 with 13:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa broke loose for 23, with Kyle Van Noy spotted jogging and clapping in frustration as the Dolphins quarterback ran to daylight. But the biggest moment came on the first play after the 2-minute warning, with the Patriots down 3 and desperate for a stop. On third-and-8, Tagovailoa got loose again for 11 yards, which all but clinched the win.
THREE NOTES SCRIBBLED IN THE MARGINS
It remains perplexing why Bill Belichick is so conservative on fourth down given the Patriots have an effective running game. The latest example: Down, 17-7, at midfield with 1:08 left in the first half, he had Jones try to draw the defense offsides rather than run a play. Jones committed a false start, and the Patriots punted. They should have gone for it under both circumstances . . . You don’t want your quarterback trying to be vintage Steve Nelson out there, but on Xavien Howard’s 37-yard pick-six in the first quarter, Jones made the least amount of effort by a quarterback on a tackle since Peyton Manning’s Broncos days . . . The Patriots made a ton of mistakes Sunday, but not as many as color analyst Jay Feely. If this is CBS’s plan to make us long for Tony Romo, it’s working.