Here are 10 takeaways from that game.
1. New England has another slow start. The Patriots were back to starting slowly again on Sunday. After getting absolutely gashed on defense by the Dolphins to open the game, the offense ended its first possession on a pick-six thrown by Mac Jones. Then, after another drive that went nowhere, the Dolphins went 77 yards in 15 plays to go up 17-0. The Patriots would finally score on the next drive, but spotting the other team a 17-point lead isn’t going to get you anywhere, especially not with this offense.
This has been a problem for them recently. They were able to start strong last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and we saw how that went. You can almost tell how the game is going to go based on how the Patriots start, and that was no different on Sunday.
2. Mac Jones takes a step back. The Patriots ended up scoring twice in the fourth quarter to come back into the game, but they had to mount a comeback because their rookie quarterback again started slowly and looked bad for much of the game. Mac Jones ended up finishing 20-for-30 for 261 passing yards and a touchdown, but he played worse than the numbers would suggest.
Jones looked like a veteran in the middle parts of the season, but he has played like a rookie over the last month. He has been late to make throws and reads, and made some questionable decisions with the football.
Jones has consistently played well at the end of games, even when he struggled early, but New England cannot win with a QB that keeps turning the ball over. Look no further than Sunday’s game.
3. The Patriots defense still can’t stop the run. This isn’t breaking news, but the Patriots still cannot stop the run. More to the point, they can’t stop the run when they need to. You can line up, with everyone knowing that you want to run it, and you would still be able to run it.
This is what has been happening for the better part of the year, and it was no different on Sunday. New England had trouble with the read option, and looked unable to make quick decisions. When defenders did make an initial hit, the Dolphins’ backs, who were both cut at one point this year, pushed forward and grabbed a few extra yards.
Winning in the playoffs isn’t predicated on stopping the run, but it’s very tough to win in the playoffs if you can’t.
4. Matthew Judon is invisible. Matthew Judon usually gets the Rob Gronkowski treatment, meaning that he is held on almost every play but it is rarely ever called. With that being said, he has done next to nothing for the last month-plus.
To add on to that, he has had some bad mental mistakes, including a roughing the passer penalty on Sunday. That didn’t cost the Patriots any points, but those are the types of mistakes that can kill a football team — and a player of Judon’s quality and experience should be able to avoid.
5. Brandon Bolden continues to be a spark. Where would the Patriots offense be without Brandon Bolden? That is a question I didn’t think I would ever have asked, but here we are.
Bolden scored a pair of touchdowns, and looked like the most explosive player on the offense on Sunday. When James White went down in Week 3, it looked like the Patriots would be short-handed in the receiving back department. While obviously not on the same level as White, Bolden has been a solid player for the Patriots.
The Patriots are going to need him to continue to serve as a reliable member of their offense if they are going to advance deep into the playoffs.
6. Injuries are starting to mount. The Patriots have some injury concerns as they head into the playoffs. Kyle Dugger and Dont’a Hightower missed the game against the Dolphins, while Christian Barmore was injured on one of the last plays of the game.
Isaiah Wynn also left the game with an ankle injury. Losing any of those players for the game next week would be tough to overcome, even though there is hope that at least some of them will be back.
7. New England’s inability to play from behind shines through again. As we talked about, the Patriots have had trouble with slow starts lately. To compound this problem, they also have a hard time playing from behind: they are not an explosive offense, and, although they can put together some good drives, scoring quickly is not something that they can do.
When they fall behind by a few scores, coming back is not something that the other team is concerned with. The offense, of course, is a problem here, but the defense has also had difficulty getting stops at the end of games to give the Patriots a chance in these close games. They allowed late scores to both the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills, and were unable to stop the Dolphins after cutting the deficit to three points on Sunday.
The offense and defense are built to play from ahead, and are in trouble when falling down by multiple scores and trying come back. This week, it is going to be imperative for New England to get started early, especially with the explosive offense on the other side of the field.
8. There are some coaching concerns. The Patriots’ special teams units have struggled this season, and continued that on Sunday. Lawrence Guy illegally lined up over the long snapper, and the Dolphins got a first down out of it on a 4th-and-1. Even the second to last play of the game was probably not executed as well as it should have, with Gunner Olszewski allowing a Miami punt to hit the ground and roll all the way to the 3-yard line as the seconds ticked away. Special teams is all about coaching, and there have been issues all year long.
Combine that with the conservative play-calling that they used all year long, and those things are going to put you behind the 8-ball. Typically, coaching is a place where the Patriots have an edge on the opponent, but that has not always been the case this year. If they are going to win next week in Buffalo, the coaching is going to have to be much better than it has been.
9. The officiating is terrible, again. It’s time for my weekly rant about the officiating. Once again, the officials did not cost the Patriots the game. Many of the calls, or lack there of, were still terrible.
The one that sticks out is the call on Brandon Bolden, of course. He barely made contact, and the punter slid incredibly late. It was a fourth-down call, and the referee closest to the play didn’t feel as though it warranted a penalty. He was overruled, and the Dolphins were awarded a first down.
There were multiple questionable pass interference penalties on both sides as well. Then, there was a Tua Tagovailoa third down conversion that saw holding in the backfield and a block in the back 5-7 yards downfield go uncalled.
It’s been the same story all year, and the Patriots have experienced both sides. The officiating has been terrible, no matter the game or teams involved. There are supposed to be plans in place to make sure that the calls aren’t egregiously bad every week, and yet, it seems like this was one of the worst years of officiating that we have seen in recent memory.
10. Another game in Buffalo awaits. The Patriots will play their division rivals for the third time this season on Saturday night, and have a chance to not only win in the playoffs but also crush the dreams of the Bills organization and their fans. Of course, the game could also look a lot like the one in Foxborough a few weeks back, but let’s try not to think about that.
Going into Highmark Stadium to steal another win will be an incredibly tough task for New England, especially given how the team performed recently. However, assuming they will have a fully healthy backfield and offensive line, they do have a chance. One thing is for sure, though: it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch the Patriots in the playoffs again.