The AFC East had been clinched in the hours before two of its members met at Hard Rock Stadium.
And there Sunday afternoon, the New England Patriots fell to the Miami Dolphins by a score of 22-12, and out of playoff contention for the first time since 2008 with a record of 6-8.
Here’s a glance back as the transition from December to January nears.
With Harris downgraded, the Patriots’ backfield turns to Michel
New England downgraded running back Damien Harris to out prior to Saturday’s flight into Miami Gardens. And in the absence of the 10-game starter, limited in practice due to an ankle injury, the active depth chart consisted of captain James White, undrafted free agent J.J. Taylor and former lead rusher Sony Michel.
Michel had been held in check to the tune of 10 carries for 37 yards and a touchdown when the Patriots crossed paths with the Dolphins in the season opener. His more recent work after coming off injured reserve came as insurance between the tackles and on special teams.
But the No. 31 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft got the start on Sunday afternoon. And while Michel’s initial handoff ended behind the line of scrimmage, he took his next for six yards and then 16 yards. A gain of 17 came shortly thereafter. Michel, who had an 8.4-yard average at the half, wound up with 74 yards on 10 rushes.
Missing targets, Miami’s rookie quarterback hosts New England
There’d be no DeVante Parker or Jakeem Grant at wide receiver for the Dolphins. There’d be no Mike Gesicki at tight end, either. All three went to the inactives prior to kickoff after being listed on the injury report as questionable. And in turn, Miami’s passing game found itself without their combined 131 receptions for 1,609 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Not to mention all-purpose back Myles Gaskin, who stayed on the Covid-19 reserve list for Sunday.
Yet rookie Tua Tagovailoa had a start to make. And in his first one behind center against the New England defense, the Alabama product began 7-of-7 through the air. He finished it 20-of-26 for 145 yards and an interception to snap his early completion streak. Hybrid Patriots safety Adrian Phillips got to Tagovailoa for a sack. Linebacker Josh Uche tacked on one of his own against an April draft classmate. But the quarterback called his own number for points on a scramble in the fourth quarter. A two-point play ensued. So did a TD sneak for Tagovailoa with 3:17 to go.
In the company of the NFL’s pick leader, Jackson closes the gap
The lone NFL defense with more interceptions than Miami’s belonged to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Heading into Sunday, those units respectively sat at 16 and 17.
Xavien Howard had played no small part in that ranking. The Dolphins cornerback accounted for nine interceptions to lead the league, a pair ahead of Patriots corner J.C. Jackson over that span.
But Jackson closed the gap at the goal line in the closing seconds of the first quarter, picking off Tagovailoa under the pressure of outside linebacker Chase Winovich. The attempt, intended for rookie wideout Lynn Bowden, curtailed a possession that stretched 15 plays, 95 yards and more than nine minutes of game clock. Jackson now owns the rights to eight picks on the year and 16 in his career. Howard owns the rights to 17 since Jackson went undrafted and to Foxborough in 2018.
Margin for error remains slim for the Patriots’ passing game
Sunday’s opening drive lasted three plays for the New England offense. Those plays brought a loss of three yards and a retreat to the sideline. Cam Newton then hit wide receiver Jakobi Meyers across the middle on the following series to move the chains. But that possession was stifled by a high throw off the hands of rookie tight end Devin Asiasi and a bailed screen pass the quarterback sent into the grass on third-and-9.
The passing game showed signs of rhythm before halftime. As it did, Newton fumbled fighting for extra yards in the red zone on what briefly became a Dolphins touchdown for the aforementioned Howard. Officials ruled otherwise upon review. The Patriots stayed on for a field goal by kicker Nick Folk to make it 6-0.
Newton had an 8-of-15 passing line for 66 yards at intermission. He had a 17-of-27 passing line for 209 yards at the end of regulation. Along the way was a 20-yard completion to Meyers that resulted in a fumble. Current Dolphins captain Elandon Roberts fell on the ball at the midfield logo. Newton and Meyers would later reconnect for a pickup of 35 and a pickup of eight that set up a third field goal. A fourth field goal followed for New England on a day where 22 percent of the third downs were converted.
Gilmore helped into the tunnel following non-contact injury
Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore exited in the final minutes of the second quarter.
The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who had slipped without contact in the process of covering Dolphins wide receiver Mack Hollins, went down clutching his right leg. Gilmore was helped to the blue medical tent and then to the locker room by members of the training staff.
The Patriots declared Gilmore doubtful to return as veteran Jason McCourty stepped into the secondary in his place. He’d be downgraded to out along with third-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who suffered an arm injury on Sunday. Center David Andrews and defensive end John Simon also left the game with injuries for New England.
Ahmed, Breida and Co. find a season-high 250 rushing yards
The Dolphins placed last in the NFL with a rushing clip of 3.6 yards per carry. Only five offenses averaged fewer rushing yards per game than Miami’s 95.2.
There would be room to work in that department Sunday. That was seen as the second half got underway. The Dolphins ran eight times in nine snaps to take a 7-6 lead on a Salvon Ahmed touchdown plunge. In tandem, the undrafted free agent from Washington and Matt Breida tallied 208 rushing yards for the backfield on 35 tries.
In all, Miami road-graded to find a season-high 250 yards against a New England defensive front that conceded 171 to Los Angeles Rams rookie Cam Akers in its previous outing.