MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- For the Patriots, opportunity wasn’t just knocking. It was beating the door off the hinges.
The division title was in their sights. The hats and T-shirts were somewhere in the building, ready for a trip back to New England. In addition, the first step on the inevitable march to the No. 1 seed in the AFC -- and home field throughout the postseason -- was there for the taking, courtesy of Denver’s loss to San Diego on Thursday.
But a late drive from the Dolphins right through the Patriots defense, combined with the inability of the New England offense to seal the deal with the game on the line, gave Miami the 24-20 win before a sold-out crowd Sunday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium.
It was an afternoon of missed opportunities: under sunny South Florida skies, the Patriots only had one touchdown to show for their four trips to the red zone. They missed a field goal. And they were a few dropped passes away from at least one more field goal.
And they still lost.
“We didn’t do a good job getting into the red area, and we didn’t do a good job finishing drives,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who set a land-speed record for postgame press conference time, finishing in less than a minute before uttering an obscenity and exiting stage right.
“It just wasn’t a good day,” he added. “We just couldn’t make enough plays when we had a chance to.”
It wasn’t just missed chances when it came to the game. Instead, there were big-picture opportunities that went by the wayside with the defeat. The Patriots not only had a chance to clinch the AFC East crown again at the expense of a divisional rival, but the Broncos presented them with a gift with their Thursday night loss. In a remarkable confluence of events, it was all there for the taking.
But with all of that within their grasp, they couldn’t close the deal. For a team that had managed to distinguish itself with a solid dose of pure mental toughness and grit over the first 13 games of the season, failing to execute with the game on the line is out of character.
“It’s all pretty disappointing -- you feel like you had enough chances to win the game,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, who moved from left guard to left tackle in the second half after Nate Solder left the game with a head injury. “Not just that last drive, but throughout the game. We had multiple chances in the red area and didn’t get enough touchdowns.
“We had plenty of chances to win. I felt like we were always moving the ball until a certain point, then we wouldn’t make any plays, or we’d make a mistake that would kill the drive. It was just one of those days where you’d get going and either they’d stop you or you’d stop yourself. I kind of felt like we were stopping ourselves today. I’m not 100 percent sure on that, but that’s what it felt like to me.”
New England had a really good start, jumping to a 10-0 lead and playing steady and consistently in all three phases of the game. But the Dolphins roared back, putting up 17 straight points and taking a seven-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter. That set the stage for the frantic finish: Gostkowski delivered a 23-yard field goal midway through the fourth, and after getting the ball back, the Patriots tacked on another touchdown, this one coming on a 24-yard pass play from Brady to Julian Edelman over the middle to make it 20-17.
After that, it went downhill. Gostkowski knocked his kickoff out of bounds, giving Miami great field position, and just 2:52 later, the Dolphins had the lead when Ryan Tannehill found Marcus Thigpen for a 14-yard touchdown pass. On the other end, Brady got the Patriots to the Miami 14, picking up two third downs and a fourth-down conversion along the way. Suddenly, there was a sense of deja vu, as Brady appeared poised to duplicate the same last-minute magic that marked dramatic wins over the Saints, Broncos and Browns.
But four pass plays fell incomplete -- one was nullified by a defensive penalty -- and Michael Thomas, a former 49ers practice squad player who only took reps with the scout team defense this week, intercepted the fifth in the end zone.
“We made some plays -- we just didn’t make enough,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the final drive. “Close, but not enough.”
In truth, the Patriots have been walking a tightrope for most of the season, cheating death most of the year and living to tell the tale. Sunday marked the 11th time this season that a New England game was decided by seven points or less.
Eventually, those odds catch up with you. On Sunday, they caught up to the Patriots.
“It’s disappointing -- both teams had a lot to play for,” Mankins said. “They were playing to keep their playoff chances alive. And we were playing to wrap up the division. They’re moving forward, still in the hunt. And we need to rebound from this.”
Opportunity isn’t knocking anymore. While the Bengals' Sunday night loss helped them when it comes to the No. 2 spot, the Patriots don’t have any control over their own destiny. The division still is up in the air. And suddenly, with just two games left in the regular season, there is a whole new round of questions that need to be answered about this team.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
JULIAN EDELMAN IS ON AN AMAZING PACE
There are a lot of people who could take the blame for this loss, but Edelman certainly isn’t one of them. The receiver had another monster afternoon, coming away with 13 catches (on an amazing 19 targets) for 139 yards and a touchdown. He was at his best with the game on the line -- Edelman, who tied a career-high for catches and set a new personal mark for receiving yards in a game, had nine catches for 102 yards in the second half, continuously helping the Patriots move the chains in several key situations. His 24-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter was a great catch-and-run sequence where he made a tremendous snag going over the middle and fought through defenders on the way to the end zone. Fourteen games into the 2013 season, he has gone above and beyond with 89 catches for 914 yards and six touchdowns. (Edelman became one of nine players in the last 50 years with two 13-catch games in one season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.) With 100 receptions and 1,000 yards in sight between now and the end of the year, he’s been one of the singular most important parts of the New England offense this season.
TOM BRADY CAN BE IMPATIENT
The quarterback gave his shortest postgame Q&A in recent memory after the game on Sunday, going less than a minute and ending his two-question presser with an abrupt: “We had plenty of chances all day. We make some good plays, and then we make plenty of [expletive] plays. Thank you.” He walked offstage and left with his wife, Gisele. The last-minute drive aside, it was a pretty good afternoon for Brady. Even in the first half, an area where he’s struggled over the last month-plus, he was efficient. Working with a distinct lack of depth at receiver -- rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson were out with injuries -- he put together a pair of scoring drives and led the Patriots to an early 10-0 lead. But his best drive of the day likely came in the fourth quarter, when he went 4-for-5 on a six-play series that ended with Edelman crashing into the end zone after a 24-yard dash to paydirt. However, coming up short on that final drive will ultimate eat at the quarterback, who couldn’t connect with Edelman, Amendola, Hoomanawanui or Collie with less than a minute to go and New England in the Miami red zone. In the end, he finished 34-for-55 for 364 yards, two touchdown passes and one pick. In all, over the last six games, he’s 181-for-271 (67 percent) for 2,225 yards, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions.
IT WASN’T A FAST START -- MORE LIKE DOING 45 IN A 30 MPH ZONE
The Patriots weren’t overwhelming over the first two quarters, but for a team that has made slow starts the norm over the last two months, it was a good start. After being outscored 67-34 in the first half of the previous five games, they jumped to a 10-0 lead. For the first 27 minutes -- prior to the defensive breakdowns on Miami’s last drive -- it was a really impressive display of complimentary football for the Patriots, with the offense going 4-for-7 through the first two quarters, the defense playing well (again, until the late breakdowns) and the special teams doing its part to tilt the field. Considering the circumstances and who it was missing, it was one of the better, more efficient first halves New England has played this year.
CRACKS ARE STARTING TO SHOW IN THE PASS DEFENSE
The Patriots actually did a good job slowing the Miami running game -- it was the first time since September New England kept an opponent under 100 yards on the ground -- but the Patriots appeared to have some issues in coverage. New England’s first big stumble came at the end of the first half when Kyle Arrington went to the sidelines and was replaced by Marquice Cole. The Dolphins immediately went after Cole, who was matched up on Mike Wallace, and Wallce scalded him for a quick touchdown. (Wallace said after the game they went right at Cole.) But there were plenty of times where a defender found himself a step behind in coverage, including linebacker Dont’a Hightower on the game-winning touchdown pass from Tannehill to Thigpen. They did a good job shutting down tight end Charles Clay, who had one catch for six yards and was clearly the focus when it came to the New England defense. (He was matched up against Aqib Talib on several occasions.) But too much Wallace (six catches, 105 yards, one touchdown), Brian Hartline (five catches, 70 yards) and Rishard Matthews (five catches, 64 yards) was too much for the Patriots. In all, Tannehill ended the day by going 25-for-37 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. (One more note: After allowing less than 250 passing yards in six of seven games, the last three quarterbacks the Patriots have faced -- Case Keenum, Jason Campbell and Ryan Tannehill -- have all topped the 250-yard mark. As a group, they’ve gone a combined 69-for-111 -- 62 percent -- against New England, with 975 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.)
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI IS CAPABLE OF HAVING A LOUSY DAY
Gostkowski, who remains on pace to have one of the finest regular-seasons of any kicker in the recent history of the franchise, botched a fourth-quarter kickoff that gave the Dolphins terrific field position for their game-winning drive. In addition, he missed a 48-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter that ended up breaking a streak of 21 straight makes from inside 50 yards for him. There was a lot of good to go along with the bad -- including two made field goals, as well as the fact that he had put three of his five kickoffs into the end zone -- but when you look at the body of work he’s put together to this point in the season, it won’t go down as one of his better days.
LOGAN MANKINS CAN DO A FEW THINGS
The Patriots offensive line took another hit on Sunday when left tackle Nate Solder -- who was questionable coming into the game because of a concussion he suffered last week against the Browns -- left the game in the second half with what the team described as a head injury. In his place, the Patriots turned to Mankins, who had extensive experience at the left tackle spot as a collegian and limited experience there as a pro. Backup Steve Kline took Mankins spot at left guard. While Mankins flashed a self-deprecating smile when he was asked about his performance (“I don’t recall anything screwing anything up, so that’s always good,” he said), it’s clear depth has become an issue for the Patriots, particularly at tackle. If Solder is lost for any length of time, that would mean New England would be down to their backups at both tackle positions, as right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has already been lost for the season because of injury. The Patriots were able to hold up well against the Dolphins’ difficult pass rush -- Brady, who was clearly making a concerted effort to get the ball out as fast as possible, was only sacked once -- but it remains to be seen just how sustainable that is.
MICHAEL HOOMANAWANUI HAS SOME HANDS
It’s only natural to expect the Patriots’ tight end position to drop off the radar screen -- at least from a pass catching perspective -- now that Rob Gronkowski is out for the rest of the season. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t contribute offensively once and awhile. One of the offensive highlights of the day for the Patriots came late in the second quarter when Brady found Michael Hoomanawanui deep in the end zone with a floater that saw the big tight end reach back and make a really impressive one-handed catch, beating his man and coming away with the first New England touchdown of the afternoon. Hoomanawanui will never have the offensive oomph of a Gronkowski, but he’s proven himself to be a quality blocker and an utterly dependable presence when the ball is thrown in his direction -- he’s caught 11 of the 17 balls that have come his way this season. And while some of it was because of coverages and some was scheme, it was interesting to see that Brady thinks enough of Hoomanawanui to send the ball in his direction on the final pass play of the game.
NO PLAYER WHO BEATS THEM IN A BIG MOMENT THIS YEAR WILL BE MORE ANONYMOUS THAN MICHAEL THOMAS
The former Niners defensive back, who was on the San Francisco practice squad a week ago, made the two biggest defensive plays of the game for the Dolphins: First, with the game on the line and the Patriots taking their first of four shots at the end zone late, he was able to knock the ball away from Danny Amendola, keeping New England at bay. And then, three plays later, he was able to pick off Brady in the end zone on a ball meant for Austin Collie. The 24-year-old out of Stanford, who was playing in his first-ever NFL game and spent all week on the scout team, was so under-the-radar that several of his Miami teammates -- including Bryant McKinnie -- confessed they did not even know his name, only calling him “Thirty-one.” Thomas, who confessed to breaking down and sobbing after the game because he was so overcome with emotion, was asked if he was going to keep the game ball. “I don’t know if that’s against the rules or not,” he said, “so I’m just going to go ahead and say, ‘No, I didn’t.’“
IT DOESN’T GET ANY EASIER FOR THEM
The Patriots move from one contender in must-win mode on the fringes of the AFC playoff race to another, as they’ll travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens on Sunday afternoon. It’s debatable just how much Baltimore will be hanging in when it comes to the postseason chase -- a loss to the Lions on Monday night could be the final straw for the defending Super Bowl champions -- but the Ravens always get up for the Patriots, and this game won’t be any different. Thanks to the Bengals awful performance against the Steelers, New England was able to keep hold of the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff race, but there’s still no margin for error down the stretch.