The NFL Combine is raging on right at this very moment. If you’re anything like me (and here’s hoping for you’re sake that you’re absolutely nothing like me), you appreciate the Combine as something to have on the TV as background noise while you’re getting stuff done around the house or finishing up a few chores. I’ll definitely have it on most of the day tomorrow, but I’d be lying if I said I was going to be paying super close attention.
So if you’d rather reminisce than look ahead today, I’ve got you covered. Time to continue our countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable New England Patriots Moments of 2021.
The list so far:
20. The Patriots trade Stephon Gilmore to the Panthers for a sixth-round pick.
At Number 19, we go back to the very beginning of the season for a hard lesson in just how much a game of inches football is.
19. A Week 1 goal line fumble costs the Patriots the game at home against the Miami Dolphins.
After one of the most eventful offseasons in franchise history, the Patriots opened up their 2021 campaign at home against the Dolphins on September 12th. Was this the first of many Mac vs. Tua matchups? And how would the rookie fare in his NFL debut? Nobody quite knew what to expect out of this team; all of the new faces meant that there was some serious talent on the roster, but at the same time you need players to gel and learn to play together well. Plus, rookie quarterbacks often need time to adjust to the speed and intensity of real football after a few meaningless games in August. So most Pats fans were optimistic, but understood that Week 1 of 2021 was the beginning of a process.
And this game was, for the most part, very evenly matched. Miami got out to an early lead, but the Patriots were able to answer back for a 10-10 tie at halftime. The Fins got the ball to start the third quarter, marched right down the field, and went up 17-10 for the last points they would score that day. The Patriots moved the ball well on their ensuing drive, going 67 yards on 14 plays, but the drive stalled just outside the red zone to force a field goal. Miami would give the ball right back after a three and out, and once again the Patriots were able to move the ball well with another 14 play drive. However, the drive once again stalled, this time at the Miami 15, and the Pats were forced to kick another field goal to bring it to 16-10. The Dolphins didn’t look like they could get anything going on offense, as the D had stiffened significantly since that opening third quarter drive, so if they could just force one more stop, Mac Jones would have his first opportunity to engineer a 4th quarter comeback.
A decent Miami drive was cut short when Tua’s pass was intercepted by Jonathan Jones at the 50 yard line with just over eight minutes left to play. And once again, Mac Jones and the offense got to work. Damien Harris, who had been running well all day, helped move the chains, along with some high percentage completions to Jakobi Meyers. More importantly, the clock was moving as well, and a short crosser to Jonnu Smith for 11 yards gave the Patriots a 1st and 10 at the Miami 11 yard line with just over three minutes to play. Miami still had all of their timeouts, plus the Two Minute Warning, but if New England could punch it in here, that would more or less be the game. Based on the way the defense had played, even a field goal would have likely been enough, and the Patriots were already well into field goal range.
On 1st-and-10 from the 11, Damien Harris ran off the right tackle for a two yard gain, down to the nine, to eclipse 100 yards on the day. Unfortunately, he also coughed up the ball, as Xavien Howard punched it out before falling on it to give Miami the ball. It was close, as his knee was almost down, but the ruling on the field was upheld and Miami kept possession.
The Patriots found themselves unable to stop the run — an issue that would plague them all season — and a combination of direct snaps to Malcolm Brown and Patriots legend Jacoby Brissett gave the Dolphins the two first downs they would need to kneel out the clock and escape with a 17-16 win. New England started out the season 0-1.
Looking back on it now, I feel like I probably could have ranked this moment higher. The bottom line is that if Harris doesn’t fumble there, the Patriots win this game. They win this game, and the rest of the season plays out exactly the same way, they’re 11-6 instead of 10-7 and win the AFC East during Mac Jones’s rookie season. And of course who knows if the season would have played out the same way and who knows what the ripple effect would have been and all that good stuff, and yes New England faltered down the stretch and this play shouldn’t have had the impact that it did... but it’s pretty wild to think that this Week 1 fumble ended up deciding how the Patriots season went. In a season that represents such a massive transition for the future of this franchise, to have basically come one goal line fumble away from winning your division is a pretty big deal. And since it came in a loss, and a home loss to Miami at that, I’m OK ranking it all the way down here at Number 19. Love it or hate it (and who in their right mind loves it?), it ended up being a pivotal point of the 2021 season.
Game highlights here.