It looked like the Dolphins had won their first postseason game in almost two decades. Coaches celebrated. The starting quarterback got a piggy back ride to the locker room. It was a party.
That was the scene when the Dolphins left Gillette Stadium in December of last year to spoil the chances the playoff-bound Patriots would have a bye through the first round.
The win didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things to Miami, coach Brian Flores will tell you. They finished 5-11. This season is a new season. But it meant something.
It served as the exclamation point to a season that began with seven losses -- with an average margin of defeat of 34.3 points through September -- and finished with the Dolphins winning two in a row and three of their last five.
Flores was asked on Wednesday whether last year's sprint to the finish line might've helped him establish a culture in Miami, whether it might've taught young players on that team anything about professionalism.
"I think the message has always been, whether it was last year or this year or next year, let's try to get better every day," Flores said. "Let's try to improve every day and if you do that, more times than not, you'll end up having success and seeing the fruits of that labor. So hopefully that's what the guys who were here took from last year. And then hopefully they build on that and hopefully our guys this year are building on the same thing, those same principles."
The Patriots find themselves in a spot now that is similar to the one the Dolphins found themselves a year ago. Though they haven't been mathematically eliminated from the postseason just yet -- FiveThirtyEight.com gives them a two percent chance -- they're close. And still they'll be trying to grind out wins through Week 17.
There's value in that pursuit. Even if the team is going to look much different next season. Even if wins are only going to drop them down in the 2021 draft order and tank their odds of landing a young face-of-the-franchise quarterback in the spring.
For the Dolphins, it was about establishing a culture. For the Patriots, it's about trying to maintain one, about teaching the younger players who are going to be around in 2021 and beyond -- Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Mike Onwenu, Jakobi Meyers, Damien Harris, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene -- that improving every day, as Flores put it, matters.
The similarities between the 2019 Dolphins and the 2020 Patriots don't end with their respective end-of-year pushes, either. And given where both teams sit at the moment -- the Dolphins very much in the postseason mix and looking at double-digit wins for just the second time since 2008 -- Bill Belichick's club has to hope it can experience a similarly quick turnaround.
It has some of the building blocks in place already.
First things first: The Patriots will have money to spend. Even with the cap set to crater this offseason down to about $175 million, the Patriots are projected by OverTheCap.com to have the third-most effective salary cap space in the NFL ($58.8 million). That should allow them to be aggressive in signing impact players at positions of need -- it looks like a particularly strong receiver class -- who can help right away.
Are they where the Dolphins were a year ago? Not quite. Miami went into last offseason with $88.5 million in cap space and spent like crazy. They handed out $235.8 million in new contracts during the first week of free agency, including $150 million guaranteed, to players like Kyle Van Noy, Byron Jones and Emmanuel Ogbah. That helped spark a lightning-fast rebuild on the defensive side of the ball that took them from the 32nd-ranked scoring defense in 2019 (30.9 points per game) to the second-ranked scoring defense this year (18.8).
The Patriots have a boatload of veterans set to hit the free-agent market they might like to re-sign. Among them are key contributors like David Andrews, Joe Thuney, James White, Rex Burkhead, Damiere Byrd, Jason McCourty, Lawrence Guy, John Simon and Adam Butler. That puts them in a different team-building spot compared to last year's Dolphins. But the point remains: Belichick and Nick Caserio will be able to add key veteran pieces who are ready to contribute in 2021.
One more similarity between the 2019 Dolphins and the 2020 Patriots? Picks. Bunches of them. The Dolphins ended up taking 11 players in this year's draft. The Patriots have 11 for the 2021 draft. Where the draft strategy comparisons between the Patriots and Dolphins end, though, is where the two teams' selections sat.
The Patriots will have an opportunity to add talent in 2021 with a first, second, compensatory third (for Tom Brady) and three fourths -- six in the first four rounds. That's a slightly above-average haul, considering the third-rounder will be late.
Meanwhile, last year's Dolphins had a whopping three first-rounders, two seconds and seven total picks in the first four rounds. This upcoming spring they'll have two more firsts and two more seconds. Thanks to deals with the Steelers and Texans for Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil, the Dolphins fell into an embarrassment of riches in terms of draft capital. The Patriots, by contrast, looking to compete for a postseason spot at this year's trade deadline, did not sell off talent for future selections.
It is worth mentioning that the Dolphins are still waiting for serious returns from some of their top picks last spring. Their rebound has been driven more by their free-agent acquisitions.
First-round tackle Austin Jackson (No. 78 in Pro Football Focus grade among 87 qualifying tackles), second-round tackle Robert Hunt (No. 70 in PFF grade among tackles) and first-round corner Noah Igbinoghene (last in PFF grade among 135 qualifying corners) have all had rocky starts. The jury is still out on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, too, who has PFF's No. 33 quarterback grade so far this season -- ranked below both Gardner Minshew and Nick Foles.
Still, their team is where it is.
The Patriots don't have to build a culture the way the Dolphins did, but they're going about maintaining theirs similarly.
The Patriots don't have as much cap space as the Dolphins did, but they have loads.
The Patriots don't have the high-value draft picks the Dolphins did, but they have a bunch.
The Patriots also don't have as deep a hole from which to climb. Last September, Flores' team was a blowout waiting to happen. Sixteen months later, it's sniffing the postseason.
Even if Belichick and his staff can't quite mirror what's happening in South Beach from a team-building perspective, they have pieces in place to help them make a rapid turnaround of their own in 2021.