SportsPulse: With Carson Wentz out for the season, can Nick Foles lead the Eagles into the playoffs?
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Tom Brady sat on the bench, hunched over a tablet he held inches from his face. He looked like a man searching for answers.
Fifty-seven seconds remained in the New England Patriots’ stunning 27-20 Monday night loss to the Miami Dolphins. As Brady swiped through images of everything that had gone wrong, one question quickly emerged: Just how could the Patriots, just a eek before the biggest game of their season, play this poorly?
“I didn’t see it as a trap game,” veteran safety Devin McCourty said afterward. “We knew — we’ve got a championship on the line — that’s not a trap game. We didn’t execute as well as we needed to against another team that’s fighting for their playoff berth, too. So it’s just that point in the season where if you don’t play at your highest level, you’ll lose.”
If the Patriots (10-3) don’t elevate their game this Sunday afternoon, in what is expected to be the most important game of the entire NFL regular season, the AFC’s path to the Super Bowl will almost certainly wind back through Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field next month. But beat the Steelers (11-2), and New England controls its fate in the bid for home-field advantage.
With the stakes so high against Pittsburgh, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked Monday if he thought his team had looked past the Dolphins. Belichick stared down the reporter for about 10 seconds, repeatedly shaking his head.
“No,” Belichick finally said in apparent disgust. “Gimme a break.”
But the Patriots couldn’t buy a break as they kissed their eight-game win streak goodbye.
Brady didn’t complete any of his four passes in the first quarter — unless you consider his first interception to cornerback Xavien Howard. In that opening period, Miami outgained New England 123-2.
Overall, the Dolphins dominated the Patriots in first downs (21 to 14), time of possession (36:09 to 23:51) and total yards (362 to 248). The Patriots did not convert any of their 11 third-down attempts. According to ESPN Stats, the last time that happened to New England was in 1991 … when Belichick was coaching the Cleveland Browns.
Brady uncharacteristically served up two interceptions, both to Howard.
“We lacked energy,” safety Duron Harmon lamented, adding “it seemed like they wanted it more than us.”
As ineffective as the Patriots looked, though, they may have one thing working in their favor. One mark of Belichick’s teams is hyper-focused attention that rarely feeds an actual losing streak. Since 2001, when Brady became the starting quarterback, New England’s record following defeats is 40-11.
The real key for the Patriots, though, may be a player who wasn’t on the field Monday. All-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski was suspended for a dirty hit in Week 13 against Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White. The Dolphins used a lot of single-safety looks and tried to disguise their pass rush. But because Miami didn’t have to worry about Gronk, it could focus its attention on smothering New England’s wide receivers. The first pass caught by a Patriot receiver Monday came with 10:18 to play — in the third quarter. Simply put, the Patriot wideouts didn’t get open. Brandin Cooks caught one pass.
Even though Gronkowski will be back, the Steelers historically play a lot of zone and might try to mimic Miami’s strategy. But Pittsburgh’s margin for error will also likely be razor thin, given Chris Boswell has needed to drill a game-winning field goals inside the final minute each of the past three weeks. And the defense has not re-calibrated after the crushing loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Still, the Steelers are riding an eight-game winning streak. Given the Patriots will surely be challenged in what is expected to be a playoff-like atmosphere at Heinz Field, racing out to a strong start may be necessary for New England.
“That’s always important in the NFL,” Brady said. “When you play from ahead, you don’t turn the ball over. You can get a lead and play on your terms. A lot of things go your way. Tonight, we got behind and turned it over. Had to play on their terms all night, and they kept mixing up zone and man and ultimately kept us out of a rhythm. And if you don’t convert on third down, it’s not a good sign.
“We’ve got to work hard on all those things. We’re in a decent place, and we’ve got to go to Pittsburgh and try to beat a real good team.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes
PHOTOS: Week 14 NFL action