MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The T-shirts and hats were ready for distribution. Patriots equipment managers were prepared to place the "AFC East Champions" caps and shirts at the locker of each player when the Patriots finished their latest miracle comeback.
But it didn't go their way this time. The Patriots didn't make the big play. Danny Amendola couldn't hang on to a touchdown pass in the end zone and Michael Hoomanawanui didn't get the benefit of possible pass interference in the end zone and the Dolphins didn't wet their pants.
This time, the big comeback fell short. The Patriots lost to the Dolphins, 24-20, and the T-shirts and hats went back into the airplane cargo bin alongside Bob and Jonathan Kraft's high-chairs. The Patriots will have to take their division championship kit to Baltimore next weekend.
Maybe it's just as well they dropped this one. Blame it on injuries, arrogance, the passage of time, no-show defense, or perhaps some market correction in the conference, but let's face it: these Patriots simply are not that good. Sure, they are good enough to win the AFC East for the 10th time in 11 seasons — winning the AFC East has become like winning a trophy for playing T-ball in Newton — but the notion that they were the AFC's top seed is laughable. It's one thing to be artificially inflated by a weakened conference and fraidy cat opponents who stumble to defeat each week. But does anyone seriously think a Patriots team without Gronk and Wilfork and Mayo is really a Super Bowl contender?
They know it themselves. They have to know. The model of this season — the method of ridiculous comebacks week after week — is simply not sustainable. Maybe Sunday's loss at Sun Life Stadium will serve as a wake-up call of sorts. Maybe they can go into the playoffs playing confident football without falling behind and waiting for a miracle in every game.
But the road just got harder. Sunday's loss means that a potential AFC Championship game with Denver is now probably going to be played at Mile High Stadium. Worse, the Patriots are faced with the new reality that they might not have the usual cushy path through the playoffs. The Patriots' 10-4 record means they might have to play a first-round game. They might have to hit the road in the second round. And they might have to pass through Denver. Hold off on those plans to crash the cold-weather Super Bowl in the Meadowlands in February.
On and off the field Sunday, the Patriots seemed out of character.
Reliable kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal (wide left), only his third miss of the season. After the Patriots took the lead with four minutes remaining, Gostkowski kicked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, which gave the Dolphins a chance to start their game-winning drive at the 40-yard line.
"I over-kicked it,'' Gostkowski said as he stood in front of his stall in the loser's locker room. "It was not a good kick at all. I tried to kill the ball. It's a terrible timing and it stinks to have an effect on the game like that. I was trying to kick it too far. It's upsetting. Today just wasn't my day and it stinks. I play terrible and we lose.''
Brady completed 34 of a whopping 55 passes for 364 yards and a touchdown, but his last pass of the day was intercepted in the end zone by Michael Thomas with two seconds left on the clock.
Prior to the interception, this looked like New England vs. Denver and Houston and Cleveland all over again. The Patriots allowed Miami to score 17 straight points. They trailed, 24-20, when Brady got the ball back to start the weekly winning drive from his own 20 with 1:15 left. It took less than a minute for Brady to move the Patriots to the Miami 19-yard line.
Starting out first and 10 from the 19 with 27 seconds left, Brady threw five consecutive passes. Four were incomplete and the last one was intercepted. The best shot in the sequence was the first: a pass that went in and out of the hands of Amendola. It was not a drop. There was plenty of hand-fighting by Thomas. But it was not the weekly miracle we've come to expect.
"The game's on the line and I'd really like to have that one,'' said Amendola.
The last pass before the interception was over the middle to the Hoo-Man. The Patriots and their fans looked for flags. Not this week. No bailout by the zebras.
There wasn't much grace from the Patriots in the postgame interview room. Bill Belichick started his news conference before most of the media was allowed into the room, and the Hoodie typically snorted at some questions and dismissed others. An unfortunate query about playoff seeding provoked a swat worthy of Dikembe Mutombo in the Geico commercial.
Asked about losing the No. 1 seed, Bill sniffed, "I don't really know or care about anything about that . . . "
Brady was downright Beckett-esque at the podium. While Mrs. Tom cooled her estimable high heels outside the room, Brady answered only two questions and closed with a barnyard epithet.
"We make some good plays and then we make plenty of [expletive] plays,'' Brady said before ending the session (broadcast live on "Patriots Fifth Quarter") with an abrupt "thank you.''
Chill, Tom. Not even the 2013 Patriots can win on the last play every week.