Patriots

Patriots-Dolphins takeaways: Bad start, turnovers once again doom Pats in loss

Patriots

The New England Patriots finished the 2021 NFL regular season on a whimper.

Miami once again proved to be a difficult place for the Patriots to win as the Dolphins emerged with a 33-24 victory in Sunday afternoon's Week 18 game.

The Patriots have now lost four of their last five games (and seven of their last nine) at Hard Rock Stadium, including losses in back-to-back seasons. New England also has lost to Miami three consecutive times in the regular season overall.

The Buffalo Bills beat the New York Jets on Sunday to secure the AFC East title. As a result, the Patriots would have been the No. 5 seed had they beaten the Dolphins. But after losing to Miami, New England won't know its playoff seed until the conclusion of Raiders vs. Chargers on "Sunday Night Football".

Limping to the finish

W-L in Dec./Jan.
2-3

A Raiders win would make the Patriots the No. 6 seed and set up a playoff matchup against the Bills. A Chargers win would make the Patriots the No. 5 seed and set up a playoff matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Here are four takeaways from Patriots-Dolphins.

1) Poor starts are a huge issue

The Patriots were outscored 38-7 in the first quarter over their last four games. They trailed 14-0 at the end of the first quarter in two of those matchups -- Week 15 vs. Colts and Week 18 vs. Dolphins.

The only game during that span in which New England had a lead after the first quarter was in Week 17 versus the Jaguars. The Patriots led 7-3 en route to a 50-10 victory. Aside from the Jaguars game, the early deficit was too much for the Patriots to overcome each time.

 

The Pats fell behind by two scores just nine minutes into Sunday's game when Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard intercepted Patriots quarterback Mac Jones and ran it back for a touchdown. 

Bad starts are a huge concern for the Patriots entering the playoffs, whether they play the Bills (No. 3 in scoring) or Cincinnati Bengals (No. 8 in scoring) in the AFC Wild Card Round. Each team has a star quarterback and an elite wide receiver as part of an explosive offense.

New England, as a run-first team with a rookie quarterback, is not built to overcome large deficits and beat quality opponents. If the Patriots have another lackluster start next weekend, their season will come to a disappointing end. 

2) Self-inflicted wounds prove costly

No team has hurt the Patriots more in their losses than themselves. For much of the season, the Patriots have protected the football and not committed a ton of penalties. They entered Sunday with a plus-10 turnover differential, which was the sixth-best margin in the league.

New England lost the turnover battle 3-0 against the Dolphins and committed eight penalties for 78 yards, including costly offside and pass interference penalties that led to a third-quarter touchdown that put Miami up 24-10.

The Patriots drove down the field late in the third quarter and looked poised to cut the Dolphins' lead to seven again, but Jones fumbled the snap and Miami recovered. New England's defense got a stop on the ensuing Miami drive, but an illegal formation penalty on special teams by Lawrence Guy gave the Dolphins a new set of downs that ran more time off the clock.

The Patriots were 1-5 this season when Jones tallied more than one turnover (9-2 when he didn't). This team won't go very far in the playoffs if these silly mistakes aren't cleaned up ASAP. The amount of special teams mistakes the Patriots have made this season is mind-boggling.

3) Has Mac Jones hit the rookie wall?

Mac Jones had a solid rookie campaign overall, but he finished the regular season with several lackluster performances in December/January.

Perhaps the Alabama product has hit a rookie wall. He's played 17 games with the Patriots, four more than he did for the Crimson Tide last season.

Jones threw six touchdowns with five interceptions over the final four games of the regular season. He also wasn't as accurate as he showed through the first 13 games.

Here's a look at his stats during the last four games.

Week Opponent Result Cmp/Att YDS TD INT
15 IND L 27-17 26/45 299 2 2
16 BUF L 33-21 14/32 145 0 2
17 JAX W 50-10 22/30 227 3 0
18 MIA L 33-24 20/30 261 1 1

Jones' struggles of late are not a good sign for the Patriots with the postseason soon to begin. He needs to raise his game another level (or two) and protect the football better for the Patriots to reach the AFC Divisional Round.

4) Injury concerns entering playoffs

Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn (ankle) and rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson (head) both left the game in the first half due to injuries. Wynn never returned to the game. Stevenson did return.

 

Wynn's injury could leave the Patriots shorthanded at a critical position during Wild Card Weekend, while Stevenson not being at full strength would put more pressure on Damien Harris (who's battled injury at times this season) and veteran Brandon Bolden. Harris (hamstring) was questionable on the Week 18 injury report and had only 11 carries against the Dolphins.

The Patriots also were without two important defensive players Sunday. Veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower was unavailable because of a knee injury. Second-year safety Kyle Dugger, who ranked second on the team in total tackles, didn't play due to a hand injury. Dugger also missed practice on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Christian Barmore was shaken up in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter Sunday. He's been on the injury report numerous times this season. The rookie defensive tackle has been a critical component of the team's defense.

New England has done a pretty good job plugging holes caused by injuries to key players, but these are five key players. If any of them are less-than-100 percent or can't play next weekend, it would make the Patriots' already tough challenge of winning their Wild Card playoff game even more difficult.