There was plenty of reason to be concerned heading into today's game if you were a Patriots fan. For starters, this was going to be the team's first game without Gronk and there was certain to be an adjustment period. Second, New England has a knack for coming to Miami and laying an egg. And lastly, the Patriots were but a mere loss away from losing their bye week by virtue of the tie-breaker that the Bengals hold over them from their Week 5 victory. The margin for error was extremely thin, and it wasn't hard to see how things could snowball for the Pats with back-to-back road games agains the Dolphins and Ravens. You didn't have to follow that trail a long way to see how a team that appeared to be on top of the world, could end up needing a Week 17 win against the Bills to clinch the AFC East.
Then, the Broncos lost on Thursday night.
To me, that was the jolt of energy that this team needed. It put them in the driver's seat. It allowed them to control their own destiny and fight to win something as opposed to simply "not losing" it. I really thought the Patriots were going to seize that momentum and win today's contest.
Then, they let the Dolphins go 82 yards in 1:06 seconds (including allowing a 3rd and 17 conversion) to close out the first half, making a 10-point game into a 3-point contest at halftime. Then, Stephen Gostkowski followed up his best game of the season with his absolute worst that involved a critical missed field-goal and kick-off out of bounds. Then, the defense not only failed on 4th and 5 but came up limp in the red zone with pathetic coverage to give up the game winning touchdown. Then, the referees (yes, those same referees) allowed Julian Edelman and Hooman to get absolutely mugged on back-to-back would-be game-winning plays in the red zone.
And then, it was all over.
Cut to the Dolphins literally crying after a winning regular season game, Tom Brady dropping expletives in his post-game presser, and everyone in New England becoming a die-hard Steelers fan tonight as Pittsburgh is miraculously up by 20 points over the Bengals in the 3rd quarter. Yeah, it's been that kind of a day. At least we were blessed with this…
Here's your Risers and Fallers…
Julian Edelman (WR) – Once again, you can't say enough about the toughness that Edelman displayed today. He has clearly become Brady's go-to-guy, which is amazing considering he almost wasn't re-signed this off-season. You want an amazing stat? Heading into today's game, which of these stat lines is Edleman's and which one is Welker's?
76 catches, 110 targets, 775 yards
73 catches, 110 targets, 778 yards
Does it even matter? (Edelman's is the first one, by the way)
Danny Amendola (WR) – Down the stretch, Amendola stepped up big time as well, making the plays he needed to make, including a clutch 4th down grab, until dropping that would-be game-winner in the end zone. Still, it was a difficult catch and he had a defender draped all over him.
Michael Hoomanawanui (TE) – He's no Gronk, that's for sure, but credit the Hooman for his spectacular one-handed grab in the first half to score the Pats' first TD.
Austin Collie (WR) – After subbing in for Josh Boyce, Collie made some key grabs down the stretch, harkening back to the game-winning drive against the Saints. He may have just played his way to a more prominent role with this offense.
Stephen Gostkowski (K) – The Patriots would have only needed a chip-shot field goal to win had Gostkowski not whiffed on a 40-yarder in the 3rd quarter. His kickoff that sailed out of bounds also set up excellent field position for the Dolphins on their final game-winning drive. Seeing as his spectacular performances directly resulted in the Patriots previous two wins, I won't kill him too hard. Still, both of those plays are ones that you'd expect him to make good on 90-plus percent of the time. It's just unfortunate that he had two of them in the same game.
Steve Gregory (S) – Found himself out of position in the late second quarter, which allowed Mike Wallace to burn past him for a critical touchdown at the end of the half.
Dante Hightower (LB) – Dante is being asked to do a lot on defense, so I've been kind to him so far. Still, that coverage on Miami's go-ahead touchdown was pathetic.
Honorable Mention Fallers:
Offensive line – Yes, they are dealing with injury issues, but there were too many times in this game where a Miami defender had wide-open access to Brady.
Defensive Tackling – I don't have game tape to watch to pin point exactly who the offenders are, but the Patriots defense continues to let their opponents keep drives alive in what should be drive-ending situations. 3rd and 17 at the end of the second half? What should have been a Miami punt, with the Pats trying to sneak of the field for a last-second field goal to go up 13, ultimately lead to a Dolphins touchdown. And the game could have been won by stopping the Phins on 4th and 5 late in the game. There have simply been too many plays this season where should-be punts have allowed to extend into scoring drives. Yes, sometimes you get out-executed. But more often than not, these slip-ups are a result of botched tackling and missed assignments. Part of me wonders if Philbin intentionally went for it on 4th and 5 because he knows this team has a track record of routinely botching screen passes on 3rd down.
Josh McDaniels – In the 4th quarter with the Pats down by 7, on the 13-yard line, McDaniels calls for a running play. I could live with that, because you're trying to avoid a 3rd and 10 situation and want to set up a better scenario for yourself on 3rd down. It just so happens, though, that LeGarrette Blount picks up 8 yards to set up a 3rd and 2 on the 5-yard line. The Pats call a passing play which falls apart and end up kicking the field goal. Yes, eventually the defense made a stop and the Pats actually ended up taking the lead on the following drive. But given the way momentum was shifting towards Miami at that point, I truly believe that the Pats should have run there. Even if they didn't pickup two yards and the first down, they could have ended up in a 4th and inches situation. At that point, I think it behooves the Patriots to go for it again and try to get the first down, and ultimately the touchdown.
I know that a lot else happened after that which sort of makes the point moot, but I felt like that passingn play had a high fail rate and the most likely outcome there was a field goal. I think if they ran it, they have a good chance of picking up the first down on either 3rd or 4th down and would more likely than not have ended up with 7 points on that drive.
The Referees – Once again, the zebras decided to bury their flags on PI in the end zone. To their credit, at least they didn't throw them and then pick them up as if nothing happened this time. On 2nd and 3rd down, Edelman and Hooman were absolutely mugged by a defender who ran right into them and didn't turn to play the ball at all. If it happened once, then I'd feel like maybe I'm being a whiner. But TWICE on back-to-back plays? Come on.
As if that wasn't bad enough, earlier in the game, the refs flagged Dane Fletcher for pass interference on a clearly clean defensive play. That phantom call turned a Dolphins' field goal into a touchdown, a very convenient swing of four points in a game that ended 24-20.
The Patriots are 10-4. They've put five Pro-Bowlers on IR. The refs have screwed them out of 3 games and God sent a typhoon into downtown Cincinnati to hand them loss #4 (payback for cutting Tebow?) The O-line needs work. The defense just needs to get it together. But man, overall, you still can't help but admire this team's resiliency and heart. This season has been one of the most exciting, courageous, and inspiring from a team that has put together some amazing seasons before.
Two games left. Just get the bye. Go Steelers (up by 10 with 5:30 to play…)