With stunning loss to Dolphins, Patriots show they haven’t found finishing touch

This one’s going to sting for a good bit.

You could sense that in the dazed looks of New England Patriots players after the Miami Dolphins pulled off their miraculous 69-yard hook-and-lateral touchdown with no time remaining to secure a 34-33 victory at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.

Seven seconds separated the Patriots from a win and their 10th consecutive AFC East title. They had gutted their way through the outing despite disjointed play on offense, defense and special teams, seemingly putting themselves on the right end of a seesaw battle that featured eight lead changes.

But instead they collapsed.

The Dolphins pulled off the improbable: A 14-yard Ryan Tannehill pass to Kenny Stills, who then lateraled the ball to DeVante Parker, who then lateraled to Kenyan Drake. As Drake weaved through traffic, it appeared as though he would lateral to someone else. Maybe the Patriots expected that, because none of the defenders converged upon him as he traveled 52 yards to the end zone for the stunning, game-winning play.

“The way it ended, it sucked. Never really been a part of anything like that,” a wide-eyed Rob Gronkowski told reporters after the game. The big tight end had been on the field as the deep safety assigned to defending a Hail Mary pass. But the Dolphins changed things up, and Gronk admittedly was caught off guard. He made a late move toward Drake, took a bad angle and tripped in the process. Drake scored.

“I didn't think it was going to get to me,” he said. “Saw the guy trucking down the field. You saw what happened from there.”

Gronkowski added, “Just gotta make that tackle.”

But there were other missteps, including Stephen Gostkowski's missed extra point and 42-yard field goal, as well Brady taking a sack at the Miami 9 as the clock ran out in the first half. New England also failed to score a touchdown from the 6-yard line on the team's final possession of the game and had to settle for a field goal instead.

Yes, the Patriots had many chances to both put the Dolphins away. But in a manner uncharacteristic of a Bill Belichick-coached team, New England failed to capitalize.

“I feel like it's going to test our character big time, how we bounce back from something like that,” Gronkowski said.

In a way, he’s right.

The Patriots were trying to keep pace with the Chiefs, who entered Sunday with a one-game lead for the top seed in the AFC. After New England fell in the stunner and Kansas City survived Baltimore's push in overtime, there's now two games of separation with three weeks remaining.

We all know how important home-field advantage is to the Patriots. The roads to five of their seven Super Bowl appearances have gone through Foxborough. But that top seed now seems out of reach.

The Patriots also missed on a chance to create some distance between themselves and the Houston Texans. Houston fell to Indianapolis and like New England owns a 9-4 record now.

The loss to Miami also raises questions about this this Patriots team’s mettle.

All year long – dating back to the offseason – we’ve wondered if these are the same old Patriots and if they’re as formidable as Belichick’s previous squads. We’ve seen wobbles that seem to confirm suspicions that the magic might be hard to recapture. And then we’ve seen them dominate and seemingly reaffirm to us that they’re still among the league's best.

But this week’s defeat reignites concerns because the Patriots of old always came correct in December. They understand the situation at hand, and they take care of business. But this squad seemed off on Sunday – from top to bottom.

The Patriots knew they were coming to a place where they routinely struggle, having lost four of the last five on the road against their divisional foe. They stressed the importance of playing well in Miami, but they still stubmled. 

Brady, in very un-Brady-like-fashion, acknowledged he didn’t realize that his team didn’t have any more timeouts when he took that sack at the end of the first half, and New England as a result missed out on a scoring opportunity. This squad is near automatic in the red zone, but instead went 3-for-6 inside the 20 against Miami. Belichick and his assistants are routinely prepared for every scenario, but they put Gronkowski back deep to defend a Hail Mary pass. The Dolphins went with the hook-and-lateral instead, catching at least some of the Patriots off guard.

The edge that the Patriots seemed to have as December hit now seems less than razor-sharp, dull even.

Because of the history in Miami and the difficulty of divisional matchups, perhaps it’s understandable that the Patriots wouldn’t skate to victory over the Dolphins. Even the best teams will struggle at times, as the the Saints and Chiefs showed on Sunday. But both of those elite squads managed to weather adversity and earn their respective victories.

The Patriots, however, suffered an epic collapse that you don’t expect from teams poised to make a deep playoff run.

As Gronk said, this squad will be tested going forward. A date with the Steelers at Heinz Field awaits next week, and that’s certainly far from a gimme.

The Patriots must quickly regroup and regain their focus – that trademark consistency – that has defined them throughout the Belichick-Brady dynasty. If they can't, this postseason might not feature another signature march to the Super Bowl after all.

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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