If you've been paying attention, you know there is a winning formula for this season's Patriots. Even if you haven't, Bill Belichick laid it out for you last week in a video posted to the team's website.
"Good job going out there and being the most physical team," Belichick told his players after they beat the Jaguars. "Taking control of the game. That's what we gotta do. That's who we are. That's what our commitment has to be."
Physicality. Control. Meaning, tough defense. Meaning, run the football. Meaning, get out to an early lead and work from there.
The Patriots weren't able to come through on any of those fronts -- at least not consistently enough -- in their season-finale loss to the Dolphins. Before we dive head-first into Patriots-Bills III, let's get to the Week 18 grades...
In what ended up being essentially a one-score game -- the Patriots gave up a touchdown in desperation mode on the final play of the night to lose, 33-24 -- Mac Jones turned it over twice. He called his performance "super embarrassing." That might be strong. He's a rookie.
But he's also the starting quarterback of a playoff team, and so expectations should be higher for him than they are for others with his experience level. Thus, this grade.
His pick-six on the first third down of the game -- when he misread Miami's Cover 2 coverage -- made the score 14-0. They'd lost control. Quickly.
Later, Jones fumbled a snap just outside the red zone backing away from replacement center Ted Karras too quickly to give the Dolphins possession.
Jones did what he could to bring his team back in the second half, completing 12 of his 15 attempts and hitting on a few deep balls to Hunter Henry and Jakobi Meyers that pulled the Patriots close. But he couldn't put out the fire that he'd helped ignite. This was arguably his worst performance of the season.
Running back: B+
Solid day for this group, despite Rhamondre Stevenson missing the majority of the game as he dealt with a head injury before re-entering.
Brandon Bolden was very effective with an increased workload, running for 6.6 yards per attempt and scampering for a patiently-executed touchdown.
Stevenson ripped off chunk gains consistently with 34 yards on just four carries (8.5 yards per attempt). Damien Harris, meanwhile, averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. But he had a touchdown and he racked up six first downs on the ground and through the air (four catches on four targets for 36 yards).
This group was not the problem Sunday.
Wide receiver: C
Not much happening with this group.
Meyers finished with 70 yards receiving and made a couple of impressive down-the-field catches late to spark the Patriots offense. But otherwise this group was quiet.
Kendrick Bourne had 24 yards on four targets. Nelson Agholor was targeted three times and caught one for 23 yards. Bourne also appeared to miss an alert on a third-and-10 play that led to a throw to no one by Jones, who was anticipating Bourne changing his route. He was also flagged for a false start.
Tight end: B
Henry was once again one of Jones' most reliable targets. He caught five of six attempts sent in his direction and led the team with 86 yards. His diving 32-yard grab on a deep corner route was one of the most acrobatic catches made by a Patriots pass-catcher all season.
Jakob Johnson was impactful as a lead blocker in the running game, helping the team churn out 5.0 yards per carry and bumping this grade up a tad. Jonnu Smith played 25 snaps and had just one touch, a five-yard carry.
Offensive line: B-
This group gets credit for absorbing an injury to Isaiah Wynn after he played just nine snaps. To go up against a pressure-heavy defense without your starting left tackle and survive by allowing just two sacks and one additional quarterback hit... That's a solid response.
The team did allow 10 pressures, and Jones looked uneasy for long stretches. But this unit didn't commit a single penalty, and the running game was productive when called upon.
Special teams: C-
Jake Bailey did hit two of his punts inside the Miami 20. Nick Folk nailed all four of his kicks (one field goal, three extra points). Gunner Olszewski had a fine 10-yard punt-return average.
But one of Bailey's three punts sailed into the end zone for a touchback. And then there was the penalty. That's what hammers this grade.
With seven seconds left in the third quarter, with Miami punting, Lawrence Guy was flagged for an illegal formation penalty that allowed the Dolphins to continue their drive. It eventually resulted in a field goal. (Between the Jones pick-six, the Jones fumble just outside the red zone and the Guy penalty, those moments combined to dock the Patriots at least 13 points in what was essentially a three-point game.)
Bolden's personal-foul penalty on a fake Miami punt on the second Dolphins drive of the game doesn't impact this grade. The officials thought Bolden made helmet-to-helmet contact. He didn't. Shouldn't have been called.
That led to a field goal and three more Dolphins points that could have been avoided.
Defensive line: D
No sacks from this group. And there was very little in the way of impactful pressure -- Deatrich Wise (two) and Christian Barmore (three) combined for five hurries, no hits -- on Tua Tagovailoa.
But it was against the run where this unit struggled most. The Dolphins were 31st in the NFL in rushing going into Week 18, and the Patriots allowed them 195 yards on the ground.
Runs by Tagovailoa through open creases in Patriots pass-rush lanes contributed to him picking up 38 yards -- including two key scrambles -- that helped bury the Patriots.
This group was shorthanded without Dont'a Hightower and really saw just four players -- Kyle Van Noy (68), Ja'Whaun Bentley (58), Matt Judon (55) and Jamie Collins (45) -- receive significant snaps.
Collins was strong in coverage, allowing just nine yards on three targets. Judon (two) and Van Noy (three) combined for five pressures off the edge, and Van Noy chipped in with a sack.
But Judon's streak of quiet games as an edge disruptor continued. He hasn't recorded a sack or a quarterback hit since Week 13 in Buffalo. He also struggled setting an edge at times and he was flagged for unnecessary roughness with a late hit on Tagovailoa.
Though the Patriots defense gave up just 20 points on the day, they didn't get enough plays from this unit against the run or the pass in big moments.
The numbers this group gave up were far from staggering. Tagovailoa completed just 87 yards worth of passes on Patriots defensive backs. But one of those passes was a short touchdown to Jaylen Waddle on what looked like a busted coverage by J.C. Jackson.
Devin McCourty had an interception slip through his grasp for an incompletion, which normally would be just a blip on the radar. But the next play was the fake punt by Miami that resulted in a drive-extending (and erroneous) penalty call on Bolden. If he holds onto that pick, it's a game-changer.