All week, the New England Patriots talked about approaching their regular season finale against the Miami Dolphins like a postseason game. For much of the contest, however, they did not look like a playoff-caliber team: struggles on both sides of the ball allowed Miami to hang around all day and eventually score the game-winning touchdown with under 30 seconds left in the game.
Patriots (12-4) 24 : 27 Dolphins (5-11)
The Patriots won the coin toss and started the game by kicking off to the Dolphins, who started the game well and quickly gained two first downs. However, a first down sack by Lawrence Guy put the team behind the sticks and Miami was unable to make up for the lost yardage — finding itself in a fourth-and-three situation. The team did try to go for it, but a pass attempt by punter Matt Haack fell incomplete resulting in a turnover on downs.
Despite taking over at their own 45-yard line, the Patriots failed to take advantage of the fourth down stand: the team went three-and-out after a third down running attempt by James White was stopped for a loss of yardage. New England sent out punter Jake Bailey, whose kick set Miami up at its own 11-yard line after a muffed but eventually recovered punt.
Even though the Dolphins started in unfavorable field position, they were able to march down the field in a hurry thanks to two big receptions from wide receiver DeVante Parker — one for a gain of 28 yards, the other for a gain of 21. The series eventually stalled inside the Patriots red zone, but a 27-yard field goal by Jason Sanders still gave the visitors a three-point lead in the first quarter. [Patriots 0 : 3 Dolphins]
New England’s next possession started at its own 25-yard line, and saw the team generate some rhythm on offense. Rex Burkhead had a solid run to earn the Patriots their first first down of the day, before a 16-yard pass from Tom Brady to Mohamed Sanu converted a third-and-10 to end the first quarter — or so it initially seemed: Dolphins head coach Brian Flores successfully challenged the play for offensive pass interference to set up a third-and-20.
On the first play of the second quarter, the Patriots completed a pass to Julian Edelman but gained only 14 of the necessary 20 yards to keep their drive alive. The team did not decide to attempt a fourth down conversion and instead sent Bailey out for the second time to kick the football away — which he did in tremendous fashion: the ball landed at the Dolphins’ 1-yard line, and Matthew Slater prevented the football from bouncing into the end zone.
Miami started its third drive with its proverbial back against the wall, but it took the team only one play to get some breathing room again on an 11-yard pass to Albert Wilson. The series did eventually stall, however, with Stephon Gilmore breaking up a pass intended for DeVante Parker on third down to force a punt that set the offense up at its own 31-yard line.
The Patriots once again started in solid field position, but once again did go nowhere. Quite the opposite, actually: after a drop from Sanu on the drive’s first play, Brady threw an interception on the second that former New England cornerback Eric Rowe returned to the end zone for a touchdown. [Patriots 0 : 10 Dolphins]
New England’s next drive started in familiar fashion: the team lost a yard on a run before incomplete passes intended for Julian Edelman and Phillip Dorsett. Luckily for the Patriots, however, the second incompletion was overturned on a defensive pass interference penalty to give the team only its second first down of the day. And the club made it count: some strong running by Sony Michel and an 18-yard pass to N’Keal Harry set New England up with first-and-goal at the Miami 7-yard line.
While the drive was not converted into a touchdown, Nick Folk did at least put the team on the score board with a 25-yard field goal. [Patriots 3 : 10 Dolphins]
New England got some more momentum back on the subsequent drive. While Miami did gain a first down on a quick throw to Parker against zone coverage, the team eventually had to settle for a punt — and it did not take long for the Patriots to reply with its biggest plays of the day up until that point. First, Brady hit Dorsett deep for a gain of 50 yards:
Just two plays after the long completion, the game was tied as Sony Michel found the end zone from four yards out for his seventh rushing touchdown of the season. [Patriots 10: 10 Dolphins]
New England’s defense followed up the touchdown with a quick three-and-out to give the offense the football back with 1:30 left in the second quarter. Despite that and the Patriots owning three timeouts, however, the team literally ran out the clock on the first half before heading into the locker room.
The Patriots had a chance to take their first lead of the day on the opening possession of the second half, but instead went three-and-out after two running attempts and a too-short pass completion to Mohamed Sanu on third-and-five. Miami, meanwhile, had a better start into the half and quickly drove into New England’s red zone due to some creative play-calling and players simply winning their one-on-ones. The drive ended with the Dolphins’ first offensive touchdown of the day on a two-yard scramble from Ryan Fitzpatrick. [Patriots 10 : 17 Dolphins]
This time, however, Tom Brady and the Patriots offense replied in style: the unit drove 75 yards in eight plays — including a third-and-six completion on a pass from Tom Brady to Mohamed Sanu — with the final 38 yards covered by a touchdown catch from linebacker/fullback hybrid Elandon Roberts that tied the game. [Patriots 17 : 17 Dolphins]
Miami responded with another good-looking drive, but this time came away empty: even though the team reached the New England side of the field again, it had to settle for a punt after Jamie Collins Sr. registered a six-yard sack on third-and-seven to knock the Dolphins out of field goal range.
New England’s next drive did not go any better and the team again had to punt after a short possession that gained only one first down. The Dolphins, meanwhile, were able to take another lead on the subsequent possession: they quickly drove down the field again, before a pass breakup from man Duron Harmon against DeVante Parker on third down forced them to settle for a field goal with under nine minutes left in the game. [Patriots 17 : 20 Dolphins]
With a first-round bye on the line, the Patriots offense delivered arguably its most impressive drive of the day — aided by a big kickoff return by Brandon Bolden that set the offense up at its own 40-yard line. Starting with good field position, New England was able to drive for a touchdown: Brady and James White connected on a screen on third-and-goal that the veteran running back took 13 yards for a score. [Patriots 24 : 20 Dolphins]
With under four minutes left in the game, all that was left to do for the Patriots was one stop from the top-ranked scoring defense in football. However, it could not deliver and allowed Miami to march right down the field again to take a 27-24 lead with only 24 seconds left in the game when Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with tight end Mike Gesicki for the lead-changing touchdown.
New England failed to come back, and now will have to play on wild card weekend for the first time since 2009.