MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — When the Dolphins lined up for their final play Sunday, they knew they were too far from the end zone for a Hail Mary, so they weren’t thinking about who was at deep safety for the Patriots. When running back Kenyan Drake saw it was just Rob Gronkowski between him and the end zone, he smiled.
“I just saw it was Gronk in front of me and I was just like, ‘Look, I’ve got somewhere to be,’ ” Drake said.
Gronkowski stumbling and missing the tackle on the Dolphins’ desperation-double-lateral will be the lasting image of Miami’s stunning walkoff win, 34-33, against the Patriots. The lasting question will be why he was in that position to begin with.
“Just the way it ended, it sucked,” Gronkowski said. “I’ve never really been a part of anything like that. I feel like it’s going to test our character big time, how we bounce back from something like that. Just got to make that tackle.”
The play started with :07 on the clock and the Patriots up, 33-28. The Dolphins lined up at their 31-yard line. They had one chance to score a touchdown. In the game for New England were three defensive linemen, Adrian Clayborn, Adam Butler, and Trey Flowers, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and seven defensive backs, Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, and Gronkowski.
Miami center Travis Swanson snapped the ball. Six seconds left. Ryan Tannehill took a five-step drop. Clayborn, Van Noy, Butler, and Flowers rushed, the other seven Patriots dropped into coverage.
Five seconds. Four seconds. Tannehill saw wide receiver Kenny Stills open on the right hashmarks about 15 yards down the field and threw the ball. Three seconds.
Then came missed tackle No. 1 for the Patriots.
Jones dived for Stills’s ankles but missed. Two seconds. Stills flipped the ball to his right, into the hands of wide receiver DeVante Parker. One second.
Jackson couldn’t catch up to Parker from behind, and Parker also threw a lateral, this time to Drake, who was coming up the right sideline with Van Noy in pursuit. No time left on the clock.
Van Noy dived at Drake’s ankles, but Drake jumped out of his grasp.
Miss No. 2.
Drake cut in toward the middle of the field. Chung had an angle on him, but Dolphins left guard Ted Larsen was there to cut him off.
After the game, a victorious Dolphins locker room chanted, “Ted! Ted! Ted!”
“It looked like we had a little action,” Larsen said. “You just try to get down there. I was hoping they wouldn’t pitch me the ball.”
Drake cut back out toward the right pylon. Only Gronkowski was left, coming from the middle of the field at, perhaps, too sharp of an angle. The tight end stumbled on his way to Drake, who beat him.
Missed tackle No. 3.
Dolphins win, have a safe flight home.
“I kind of had a great view of the whole thing — came back inside, then I saw him and Gronk about 10 yards away and I was like, ‘Gronk is on the field! We got this!’ ” Tannehill said. “It was pretty amazing. I was following behind and I kind of just turned around and collapsed just with the emotion of the whole thing.”
The big question is one of personnel: Why was Gronkowski playing deep safety when the Dolphins were on the 31-yard line? Gronkowski plays that role in Hail Mary situations, but coach Bill Belichick and several Patriots players gave contradictory statements after the game regarding whether they thought the end of this game qualified as one.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be a Hail Mary,” said Devin McCourty, who watched the play happen from the sideline. “He would have had to throw the ball pretty far to reach the end zone.”
Harmon, who was in on the play, said the same thing.
“You just knew they’re not going to throw the ball 75 yards to the end zone. We knew that,” Harmon said. “We knew it was going to be a lateral situation. If the ball was at the 35-yard line or the 40-yard line, then we would be thinking of a Hail Mary, everybody get back, play the tip. But it was where they were, position on the field, we knew it wasn’t going to be a Hail Mary.”
Gronkowski said that he’s practiced that role before, but always for a Hail Mary. He’s done it in games. Gronkowski plays that role because he’s big and can box out players or jump and bat balls away.
“Every time we practice it it’s for the Hail Mary, but you’ve got to be ready for anything,” Gronkowski said.
If the Patriots had been expecting laterals, though, they didn’t have their best tacklers on the field. McCourty, as mentioned, was on the sideline. So was uber-athletic safety Obi Melifonwu, who has better leaping ability than Gronkowski, anyway. He’s also a trained tackler.
“Drake runs a 4.3 and Gronk probably runs like a 4.6 or 4.7, so feel good about that matchup,” Tannehill said.
After the game, Belichick said the Hail Mary couldn’t be ruled out.
“They could throw it deep or run the desperado-type play, which is kind of in between, a 20-yard pass,” the Patriots coach said. “It turned into desperado.”
The Dolphins never considered a Hail Mary, according to coach Adam Gase.
Gase said he noticed Gronkowski was deep only just before they ran the play, because he wasn’t thinking about pushing the ball downfield.
“We didn’t really think that was relevant to us,” Gase said.
The play they ran is called “Boise,” taken from the 2007 Boise State-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl. The Dolphins practice it every Saturday in walkthroughs and were waiting for a chance to use it. Tannehill said he was thrilled to see Gronkowski playing safety, knowing that the Patriots were playing into his team’s hands by using personnel suited to defend a deep ball.
“Came out, got exactly the look we were looking for, like, ‘Hey, this is a perfect look.’ As soon as we lined up, we knew we had it,” Tannehill said.
It’s not the worst loss of the Belichick-Brady era Patriots, not even close, nor is it close to the most impactful. It has to be up there among the most foolishly lost, given the poor situational awareness that cost the Patriots in the final moments of both halves. This is a team that prides itself on preparation, one that counts, “We worked on that in practice,” as an unofficial motto, right up there with “Do Your Job.”
In that respect, the Dolphins beat the Patriots at their own game on Sunday, the second Tannehill looked at who was on the field at the end of the game and thought to himself, “This is perfect.”