MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — OK, let’s just call it the worst non-playoff loss in Boston sports history.
Maybe not. I dare you to come up with anything more hideous and ghoulish than what happened to the Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday afternoon. And the consequences are likely to be enormous.
By now you have probably seen the Dolphins’ hook and ladder/double lateral a million times. You’ve seen the 69-yard touchdown scramble pass play with seven seconds left in the game. It was Ryan Tannehill to Kenny Stills to DeVante Parker to Kenyan Drake. The lasting image of the play will be that of the world’s largest defensive back — Achilles’-aching Rob Gronkowski — diving in vain as Drake bolted past him and into the end zone after time expired. The only thing missing was the trombone player from the Stanford marching band.
Why was Gronk out there, you ask?
“They could throw it deep there,’’ answered Bill Belichick (and Malcolm Butler was unavailable).
But Ryan Tannehill wasn’t going to throw a 70-yard Hail Mary, was he?
We know that Gronk is part of New England’s Hail Mary defense (Randy Moss used to help knock the ball down in the end zone), but even Tannehill acknowledged he was happy to see No. 87 as New England’s last line of defense.
“I saw Gronk out there and I said, ‘We got this!’ ’’ said the Miami quarterback.
Seconds earlier, it looked like the traditionally fortunate Sons of New England were going to have another one of those “everything goes our way” days.
While Stephen Gostkowski was kicking a chip-shot field goal with 21 seconds left (should the Patriots have gone for it from the 4-yard line to eat more clock?) to give the Patriots a 33-28 lead, Kansas City’s kicker was missing a 43-yarder, sending Chiefs-Ravens into overtime.
Perfect. The Patriots were going to win and vault over the Chiefs for the top seed in the AFC. Another easy January was waiting: first-round bye, second-round home game, AFC Championship game at Gillette, and we’re on to Atlanta. As it is always written. The competitors all fall down and New England only has to win two home games to get to the Super Bowl. Nice.
And then it all came apart in those frenzied final seconds. The “AFC East Champions” hats and T-shirts were put back in boxes and forwarded to Heinz Field, where the Patriots will have a tough game next weekend.
Suddenly, the playoff picture is very different. The Patriots could lose the bye. They could have to travel in the playoffs. They have not won a road playoff game in more than 10 years because they rarely have to win a road playoff game. Now they might have to go to Kansas City. Or (gulp) play wild-card weekend. Or play the Chargers in Los Angeles. Everything is different now because of this single play.
And it was more than just the final play that lost them the game. The Patriots left a ton of points on the field in a game that had nine lead changes. Gostkowski missed an extra point and a 42-yard field goal. New England had no running game and tackled poorly (gashed by Frank Gore and Brandon Bolden?). But the worst of the worst was clock management at the end of the first half.
It was a complete meltdown, and the bonehead play of the day was committed by Tom Brady.
The Patriots had first and goal from the 2 and came away with zero points. Brady badly overthrew Chris Hogan in the end zone on second down, then (with the Patriots out of timeouts) inexplicably took a sack on third down while the clock ran to zero.
No field goal.
“Time ran out on us,’’ said Belichick, sounding like Pete Carroll after the Super Bowl slant pass. “It wasn’t that good of a play. It wasn’t what we were trying to do.’’
“A terrible play by me,’’ admitted Brady. “I was not thinking on third down. I thought we had one timeout.’’
It’s hard to remember an instance in recent years when the Patriots did anything dumber with the clock. I only wish Jim Gray had been there to grab Belichick coming off the field for one of those awkward in-game interviews.
Brady had one of his best days of the season (27 of 43, 358 yards, three TDs), but his Miami Curse continues. He is 7-10 in this place. The Patriots have lost five of their last six games here. A Dolphins team that ranked 29th in the NFL in offense and defense managed to beat the Patriots in the heat again.
We all know that this is not one of the better teams of the 18-year Belichick-Brady dynasty. But we were beginning to think that their incredible good luck and the luxury of playing in the AFC East might allow them to get to Super Bowl LIII with smoke and mirrors. We were prepared to keep saying, “They’re not that good, but . . . ’’ right up until the duckboat parade in early February.
But it doesn’t feel like that anymore. That’s why Sunday’s shocker stings so much.
The flaws have simply been exposed too many times. They are a 3-4 road team and two of those wins came against the Bills and Jets. Now it looks like they are going to have to win a playoff game on the road, which they have not done in 11 years.
Which makes this quite possibly the worst (non-playoff) loss in Boston sports history.