FOXBORO – Blowing the bye week.
Losing at home to a team that they destroyed 43-0 in September.
Laying an egg against a four-win team at a time of year when the Patriots are historically building to crescendo.
How did the New England Patriots process all that Sunday evening?
Just a flesh wound.
“Still in the tournament,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
“It doesn’t matter. We’ve got a game next week, we’ve got to get ready to go,” said safety Devin McCourty. “Nobody feels sorry for us, we shouldn’t feel sorry for ourselves. Our goal is to play in the playoffs. We’ve got a shot next week at all of that. … We’ve got to move forward and get ready to go or the end of our season will be next week if we don’t turn the page and play good football, way better than today.”
They can say the 27-24 loss to the Dolphins doesn’t faze them and – for a team that mainlines adversity and so often comes out stronger – maybe it won’t. Hell, it was just eight days ago that they put it all together against the playoff-bound Bills and had everybody popping champagne and screaming, “THE PATS ARE BACK, BABY!!!!”
But the season-long suspicion that this team is not what its 12-4 record says it is only got stronger on Sunday.
Even with that record. Even though they won the AFC East. Even with a defense that played at a record level for the first half of the season. Even led by a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback.
Even with all that, these other facts still remain.
That these Patriots beat one team all season that had double-digit wins (Buffalo).
That they lost to every other division leader in the AFC and none of the losses were particularly close.
That they lost to a Dolphins team playing for pride in a game the Patriots pledged to treat as a playoff game.
That they lost because their historic defense got shredded by post-apocalyptic quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on a game-winning drive when their Defensive Player of the Year-candidate corner, Stephon Gilmore, got worked over by DeVante Parker.
That they lost at home for the second time in three games, dropped three of their last five and went 4-4 down the stretch.
That Tom Brady faced none of the pass-rush pressure he’s been under most of the year yet was worryingly inaccurate and had an unforced error that turned into seven points for the Dolphins.
That they again had to lean on chicanery for a touchdown – a 38-yard catch-and-run to linebacker/fullback Elandon Roberts on a not particularly accurate throw.
That without a game-tilting play on defense or special teams, the offense isn’t going to outgun the NFL’s best, nevermind Miami.
That the seeds for all these facts flowering now were planted in the spring and summer when the Patriots failed to piece together an offense that could maximize Brady’s skills.
That the duct-tape and spackle approach at tight end and wide receiver and the bad luck of injuries has made it near impossible for them to replicate the Lazarus act they pulled off at the end of last season.
All those things are true about this Patriots team as it heads into the playoffs and tries to get back to its ninth straight AFC Championship Game.
How confident are they in themselves?
Their approach at the end of the first half explains it. Tied 10-10, they stopped Miami on third-and-10 with 1:51 remaining and didn’t burn one of their three timeouts. They took over with 57 seconds left, ran twice into the line and headed for the locker room.
The WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT?!?!?!?! arm-flapping that ensued perhaps misses the point that this is not the team that’s going to do the double-up score before and after halftime.
Brady was 5-for-12 for 92 yards in the first half and 50 of those came on a semi-underthrow to Phillip Dorsett on the previous play to set up the Patriots lone touchdown.
Last week against the Bills they took over at the 50 with 1:08 left in the half, couldn’t convert a fourth down and saw Buffalo score a go-ahead touchdown with six seconds left in the half.
For two months, this team’s M.O. has been to win with defense and special teams and get it to Jake Bailey on fourth down to play field position. Turtling before the break on Sunday isn’t why they lost. Being confused as to why they did it is like wondering why a one-eyed dog doesn’t catch Frisbees very well.
In the end, the offense put up 24 and gave Miami seven. The defense – at home and healthy – couldn’t keep Miami from driving on them after the offense gave it the lead.
The Patriots needed this win and they needed the bye to get healthy. Instead, for the first time since their “bottoming out” season of 2009, they’ll play in the Wild Card Round.
That one didn’t go so good – a 33-14 loss to Baltimore. This time, they’ll get Tennessee, a team that beat them soundly last year which has a coaching staff that’s intimately familiar with the Patriots. That’s been Bill Belichick’s Kryptonite a few times, including on Sunday.
As brilliant as Brady was last week against Buffalo – and he was sublime – it’s natural to wonder what the implications of this season finale will be on the offseason decision-making when it comes to keeping him in New England. He played poorly. Was it the elbow he injured last week – an injury he said came in addition to the elbow injury he suffered earlier in the month? Brady said it wasn’t.
He finished the year with 24 touchdown passes and eight picks – a statistically modest season similar to ones he had in 2003, 2006 and 2013 when he was a younger man and not in a contract year. How important will the context of those numbers be when the Patriots decide how hard to work at keeping him here? How much does the context of those numbers matter to him given the cast he was working with?
How much of a dent does this loss leave on the team’s psyche? Does momentum carry over week-to-week?
“I would say no,” said McCourty. “You try to get ready to go each week. It doesn’t matter. I think other sports where you might be playing one night, then the next night, or two nights (it might). Each time we play, there’s a whole week in between to prepare, to build it up, to get ready to go ….
“How we played last Saturday didn’t matter today,” he pointed out. “That was evident out there. How we played this week doesn’t have to matter next week. If we go out here and practice well, execute and go play our best game of the year next week, it won’t matter, we won’t care about this week. It’s all about how you prepare, it’s all about being ready to go and then executing out there on Sunday.”
After 20 games including preseason, it’s no easier to grasp what level the Patriots will collectively play at than it was in late September. Defensively, you know they’ll show up. But Sunday shook the faith they are the same shutdown crew they were for the first 10 games.
“We’ve got to dig deep this week,” said McCourty. “We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror and get ready to go. Like I said earlier, no one feels sorry for the Patriots not getting a first-round bye in the playoffs. It is what it is. We talk about it each year, each team has their own journey and this is our journey to go out there next week, Wild Card weekend and have an opportunity to continue to play. If we want to earn the right to play next week, we’ve got to go out there and play well.”