MIAMI — For the Patriots, the most damning indictment of their play Sunday afternoon didn’t come on the field. It came during Miami coach Tony Sparano’s postgame press conference.
Sparano, speaking moments after the shocking 22-21 win (check out the full game recap here) over the Patriots in front of 70,102 at Land Shark Stadium, explained that Miami didn’t really do anything exotic to beat New England, at least offensively. In fact, the Dolphins kept running a lot of the same plays over and over again in an attempt to keep quarterback Chad Henne happy.
The thing is, the plays kept working. Against a defense that was unable to make a big stop, come up with more than one turnover or do anything to make anyone on the Miami offense uncomfortable, Miami kept doing the same thing over and over again.
“We ran a lot of repeated plays out there today, things that he really likes, things that he really likes,” Sparano said of Henne. “I wanted to make sure that we’re giving him what he likes out there. You guys know — he puts a list together and gives it to us. Well, these things were on that list. Credit [offensive coordinator] Dan Henning, but we just kept running them over and over again, and made some yards out of it.”
There it was — the ultimate charge against the 2009 Patriots. This wasn’t Drew Brees or Peyton Manning. It was Chad Henne toying with New England and finishing 29-for-52 for 335 yards and two touchdowns, including a fourth-quarter drive where he led Miami down the field for the game-winning field goal by doing the same thing, over and over again, even without starting center Jake Grove.
They could not stop Henne, even when he was doing the same thing, over and over again.
“We felt pretty good in our passing game making some plays and good decisions,” Henne said. “So we attacked them that way.”
On the offensive side of the football, there is still the hammer of big-play receivers like Wes Welker and Randy Moss looming. But another maddening second-half effort in both the passing and running games has left even Tom Brady shaking his head about the state of the offense.
“I think we’ve played pretty inconsistent,” said Brady, who finished 19-for-29 for 352 passing yards, one touchdown and a pair of interceptions. “We have some good drives and we have some bad drives. Everyone is trying to put their finger on it and really figure it out. It’s frustrating for all of us.
“We certainly think that when we go out there, we have a lot of confidence that we’re going to get the ball in the end zone. We had some chances today inside the five-yard line, inside the 10-yard line, and we get no points. That’s the frustrating part for all of us.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday afternoon in Miami:
THE PATRIOTS STRUGGLE MIGHTILY TO SCORE IN THE SECOND HALF ON THE ROAD
Setting aside the London “road” game against Tampa Bay, the Patriots have struggled to put together any sort of offensive consistency in the second half when they are away from Gillette Stadium. On Sunday, they managed just one second-half touchdown when Brady hit Sam Aiken on a great 81-yard pass play with 12:16 left to go in the third quarter. Other than that, there was nothing down the stretch.
The Patriots remain one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league, but their inability to put points on the board in the second half is puzzling, to say the least. In their five road losses, the Patriots have been outscored 83-24 in the second half.
“We’ve made mistakes,” Brady said. “We made them in the first half and we made them in the second half. You’re not going to score enough points. We certainly had our opportunities today, and we didn’t make them.
“We have to find a way to close these games out.”
“We just have to execute. I think in all three phases, you just have to execute and finish. We started off the game very good — just not finishing,” said linebacker Adalius Thomas. “We are not finishing games very well. That will always come back to haunt you. You have to play for 60 minutes.”
OVERALL, ROAD WOES WILL LIKELY BE THE DEATH OF THIS TEAM
It’s not just scoring in the second half. This is a different team on the road, tentative and unsure of itself. The Patriots have lost all kinds of games away from Gillette Stadium this season: blowouts (38-17 to the Saints), shootouts (35-34 to the Colts) and drama-filled thrillers (20-17 in overtime to the Broncos and 22-21 on Sunday).
Asked after the game about the spate of road losses his team has endured this year, Belichick was characteristically blunt.
“It’s disappointing any time you lose,” Belichick said.
That being said, this team could equal the mark for road futility under Belichick. The 2000 team finished 2-6 away from home, and it’s not unrealistic to think that the 2009 Patriots could equal that lowly mark.
“It is what it is,” Meriweather said when asked about how frustrating it is to continue to lose on the road. “You just have to be mentally tough to win on the road. Our team is not mentally tough, like we are supposed to be.”
THE WORD IS OUT ON THE NEW ENGLAND PASS DEFENSE
It’s one thing for quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Peyton Manning to exploit weaknesses in your secondary. It’s quite another when Henne — the quarterback of a team that had the 30th-ranked, pop-gun passing attack in the league at just 161.8 passing yards per game entering Sunday — feels like he can drop back, and zing it downfield. When that happens, well, you’ve got some problems.
On Sunday, Henne set a career-high in attempts (52), completions (29) and passing yards (335), easily surpassing his old marks of 20 completions and 241 passing yards. The Patriots were unable to generate any kind of pressure as he was sacked only once. As a result, the New England linebackers and defensive backs frequently struggled in coverage — Davone Bess and Brian Hartline had touchdown passes.
“We just felt like that during the course of the work week that was something we could do,” Miami coach Tony Sparano. “We just felt like we could throw the ball, and we did. We gave up one sack today, in 52 attempts or whatever it was.”
Bess, in particular, was awesome, especially in the first half — he had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown before halftime, and finished with 10 catches for 117 yards (both career highs) and a touchdown. He made several players look foolish, including Patriots rookie defensive back Darius Butler, who swung and missed on a tackle attempt trying to bring down Bess on his touchdown.
“I don’t know,” said Meriweather when asked what it was that made Bess so impressive on the day. “I don’t know.”
FRANKLY, BRADY LOOKS A LITTLE BEAT UP
The great mystery of Tom Brady’s digit was solved shortly before game time, when the quarterback appeared on the field for warmups without a stitch of tape on any of his 10 fingers. Brady, whose health was a big topic of conversation in the hours leading up to the game after the national media discovered it was listed on Friday’s injury report, didn’t appear to be hindered in any way whatsoever, even connecting on several deep pass plays, including two 58-yard connections (one to Moss and one to Welker) and an 81-yarder (to Aiken), passes that might have been his three best deep balls of the season.
But the quarterback took some savage hits on the afternoon, including one where he got sandwiched by Joey Porter and Randy Starks, after which he scooted off the field toward the locker room. He returned, and was never actually sacked, but was hit three times and threw two fourth-quarter interceptions.
Brady would not blame his injured finger for any of his missteps, but in a roundabout way, he admitted he may not be at 100 percent.
“There are a lot of guys that are banged up this time of year,” Brady said. “You’ve got to get the job done. If you’re out on the field, you’re expected to go out there and play great. At times, we did that, and other times, we didn’t. There are a lot of guys who are banged up.”
RED-ZONE STRUGGLES CONTINUE TO DOG THE PATRIOTS’ OFFENSE
As they have done all season, New England struggled in the opponents’ red zone on Sunday. Overall, the Patriots were 1-for-3 in red-zone scoring chances against the Dolphins, but the opportunities they left on the table were colossal misses that ended up coming back to bite them.
“We’ve just got to do a better job down there,” said Belichick. “I have to coach better and we have to play better. When we have those opportunities, we have to take advantage of them.”
The Patriots came into the weekend 22nd in the league in red-zone scoring chances. (They had 23-for-48 on touchdown opportunities — just 48 percent — before Sunday.) On Sunday, they were able to connect on their second trip into the Miami red area when Kevin Faulk banged it in from six yards out to give New England a 14-0 lead.
But on their next two trips inside the Dolphins’ 20-yard line, they were unable to come away with any sort of points at all — no touchdowns, no field goals, no nothing — setting the stage for Miami’s shocking 22-21 win.
“It’s a matter of going out there and executing, and we didn’t do that,” said wide receiver Wes Welker of New England’s continued struggles in the red zone. “It’s something we have to do.”
The first failure came with two minutes left in the first half. Holding a 14-7 lead, the Patriots were stuffed on a fourth-and-1 from the Miami six when Sammy Morris was unable to pick up the first down. The Dolphins were able to drive down and get a quick field goal before the end of the half to make it 14-10 at halftime.
The second took place with 9:45 left in the fourth quarter and New England holding a 21-19 lead. The Patriots were on the Miami five-yard line when Brady was picked off by Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis in the end zone. Davis did a nice job boxing out Moss and coming away with the interception.
Even though Miami was unable to turn the turnover into points, they denied New England a shot at another seven, changing the overall tone of the ballgame.
“When you’re down there in the red area and you don’t score a touchdown, you give the other team too many opportunities, and you’re not going to win too many games very often when you score 21 points,” Brady said, who fired his red-zone interception of the season. “It’s frustrating, but we have to go out there and fight back. We have to go out there and do a better job next time.”
THE DOLPHINS — AND THE JETS — STILL HAVE LIFE
The Patriots had a chance to effectively end the season for the Dolphins — Miami was 5-6 heading into the game, and seven losses will not be enough to reach first place in the AFC East, and it certainly won’t be enough for a wild-card spot. To that end, in a wildly tasteless metaphor, linebacker Joey Porter compared Sunday’s game to a “war” because if the Dolphins lost, they were done for the season.
“There are just certain games that you know it’s going to be a war out there. Today was one of those games for us, because honestly, if we lost, we were out of it,” said Porter, who showed up in fatigues for the game with “Peezy” on his breast nameplate. “We needed to win this just to have a chance.”
“It puts us right back in the thick of things,” Sparano said.
The Dolphins — as well as the Jets — now have a chance at winning the division. The Patriots are 7-5 with a slim one-game lead on Miami and the Jets. New England has one division game left (Dec. 20 against Buffalo at Gillette Stadium), and so the Patriots still have their destiny in their own hands. But Sunday’s loss makes the end of the season a lot more dramatic than it needed to be.
SOMEONE HAS DISCOVERED A WAY TO STOP RANDY MOSS
On Sunday, Moss was able to bust out once, collecting a 58-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. He ended with two catches for 66 yards, and none after the first quarter. He was essentially a non-factor in the second half, and targeted just five times on the afternoon. (Moss did finish the game with 1,058 receiving yards, which leaves him tied with Jerry Rice as the only players ever to record 10 1,000-yard seasons.)
The last three weeks, Moss has a combined 10 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns. For the Moss of 2007, that’s an afternoon of work. For the 2009 Moss, those performances have become more and more of the norm because of an increased focus, according to Brady.
“They’re focusing a lot on him, and you have to get the ball to other guys when they do that,” Brady said. “As the game went along, they kept having guys over there, so I’d go to other guys.”
On Sunday, Miami cornerback Vontae Davis had primary coverage on Moss. Davis was a bit of a mixed bag against Moss when the two teams met in November at Gillette Stadium. He had a terrific interception, but he also allowed Moss to finish with six catches for 147 yards and a touchdown.
This week, Davis’ finest moment came in the fourth quarter when he picked off a Brady pass in the end zone that was meant for Moss. The cornerback did a nice job boxing Moss out and going up and beating Moss to the ball. The rookie recognized Moss’ modus operandi on a play like that, and was able to recognize what was happening and make the play.
“Our backs were against the wall,” Davis said. “I figured … Moss …Brady … they were going to try to go up top. When the ball was in the air, I knew I had to go up and attack it, because Moss makes plays on the ball. I just tried to get to it before he did.”
WHEN IT COMES TO GUARANTEES, THERE’S DEATH, TAXES AND WES WELKER AGAINST THE DOLPHINS
Welker has always been money against his old team — in five previous games against Miami, he had 37 catches for 446 yards and two touchdowns. He certainly didn’t disappoint on Sunday, ending up with 10 catches for a game-high 167 yards, including a 58-yarder down the middle of the field late in the second quarter where Welker masterfully split the defense.
However, the Dolphins were able to knock him around a little bit in the third and fourth quarters, and he had just four catches for 64 yards in the second half, including none in the final 12-plus minutes of the game. (His final reception of the day was a 18-yard gain on a short pass over the middle from Brady with 12:15 remaining in regulation where he faked Miami’s Akin Ayodele out of his jock to gain a few extra yards.)
“Yeah, it was a little bit different,” he said of the coverage he faced in the second half. “There were a couple of double-teams in there. They changed a few patterns. But overall, they did a great job.”
Sparano said there wasn’t a change in coverage, only a variety of looks that kept him off-balance.
“We had him doubled on several occasions,” Sparano said of Welker. “For the most part, the guy earned every one that he got. He ran out of some tackles. I would say that early on in the ball game one of the things I was just disappointed about, just getting him on the ground. We knew that was important.”
THE 2009 PATRIOTS ARE IN SOME DANGEROUS NEW TERRITORY
These are strange and puzzling times for many of the players who have been around the franchise for several seasons like Brady, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light and Stephen Neal. New England has now lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2006, and with three losses in the team's last four contests, the Patriots are in their first extended slump since they lost four in a row in September-October 2002.
How do they snap out of it? Brady believes that it’ll take more of a closing kick than the Patriots have displayed in the last month or so.
“I think we’ve got to find a way to play better football for 60 minutes in all phases, and everyone has got to focus on what they need to do better," Brady said. “I think that's the most important thing, being mentally tough to overcome adversity.
“And when things don't go your way you have to fight back. That's a challenge for all of us. I think at times we do. And at times I don’t think we fight very hard. We have leads in the second half and leads in the fourth quarter and we're just not closing the game out when we have the opportunity to.”