Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Patriots 28, Dolphins 29 (12/20/2004)

How the hell am I supposed to sleep *now*?

Well, the Pats finally blew one folks, falling to the Miami Dolphins after taking an 11-point lead late into the fourth quarter. The loss drops them to 12-2, a full two games behind Pittsburgh for the first playoff seed and only a game in front of the Colts and Chargers for that coveted first-round bye. The loss broke their string of consecutive wins when leading at the half (32) and after the third quarter (36), although they kept their string of games scoring first intact at 19 consecutive.

It was a game that proved once again how razor thin the line between a win and a loss really is – all of which makes the Patriots two seasons of success all the more astonishing. How did this team win 21 straight when a single late interception can cost you a game? How did they win 28 out of 29 (playoffs included) when an 11-point lead can evaporate in two minutes? How they avoided this fate 28 out of 29 times is truly amazing, but if they want to continue that run of excellence, they’ve got some work to do.

There’s no sugar coating this one; the loss rests at the feet of Tom Brady. The team that wins the turnover battle usually prevails, and Tom threw four interceptions to A.J. Feeley’s none. Almost every other statistic favored the Patriots: first downs, third down conversions, penalties, time of possession, totals yards, rushing yards, sacks – they all went the Patriots way except the two most important ones of all, turnovers and points scored.

Without Brady’s boneheaded third interception, the Dolphins wouldn’t score two touchdowns in the final four minutes, and without his fourth interception, the Patriots might have had a final drive to win it. They were in a four-down situation anyway, so there was no need to panic on second down. Sure, there was pressure on both those passes, but we’ve come to expect better from Brady under pressure. Maybe last week’s completion while sitting on the turf made him cocky. But whatever the case, he has to play better for us to have any chance against the Jets and as we head into the playoffs.

The rest of the offense ran hot and cold all game long. Corey Dillon ran for 121 yards, but was bogged down for much of the third quarter. The offensive line alternatively received praise and blame from commentator John Madden, having the most trouble in the second and fourth quarters and shining in the first and third.

The receivers did a good job overall, and it was great to see Daniel Graham back and contributing. But they were limited to short completions, never getting behind the defense for a long strike we needed. You can credit the Miami defense, but with the safeties playing deep and the Dolphins two starting inside linebackers out of the game, we should have been more consistent in the running game.

The defense held up well until the end of the game. In the last four minutes, Rodney Harrison had a foolish pass interference penalty, setting up a Dolphin touchdown, and after a Brady interception, Earthwind Moreland and Troy Brown looked like the Keystone Cops, allowing the Dolphins their last touchdown of the night. I think Romeo Crennel should separate Moreland and Brown, because the two of them on the same side of the field is a deadly combination for the Patriots. And while Harrison played well in run support, he added a stupid personal foul (spearing) to his pass interference penalty to account for 33 of the Patriots 53 penalty yards for the game. Not good.

This very poor end of the game overshadowed the solid play of the defensive line and linebackers for the entire game. Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green were factors on nearly every play, and the ageless Willie McGinest always makes plays, whether he’s rushing the passer or covering a tight end. I also thought Asante Samuel played very well in the secondary; the team could have used two or three of him.

Oh, and the special teams get mention for being anything but special. Kevin Faulk returned okay, but the Patriots were consistently facing a longer field than the Dolphins. With as many starters as the Patriots play on special teams, they should do better in the return and coverage plays than they have lately. Here’s hoping they can get that straightened out before the playoffs; although it is rarely a deciding factor unless your special teams are terrible.

Well, what more is there to say? It was shameful to waste 56 minutes of great effort with two minutes of brain-cramp-itis. But it just goes to prove how difficult it is to win week in and week out in the NFL. Every team has good players, and you don’t get a do-over or another week to plan something else if things don’t work out. No seven-game series in football – one chance and that’s it. It took the Patriots 56 minutes to build an 11-point lead and only two minutes to lose it, and that cost them a game.

So where does all that leave us? Well, in my pre-season preview, I predicted the Patriots would win this game and lose to the Jets this Sunday. Now that they’ve lost the first of those two, I sincerely hope they can reverse those results and beat the Jets on the road. It won’t be easy with the Monday Night hang-over and a division opponent on the road, but the Patriots do match up better against New York than Miami.

Last night’s loss almost certainly assures the Pittsburgh Steelers the first seed in the AFC (they would have to lose their last two games and the Patriots win their last two for Pittsburgh to finish behind New England). And whether the Patriots win or lose against the Jets, the only serious competition they have for that second seed (and the bye week that comes with it) is from the Chargers. The Colts would have to win their last two and the Patriots lose to both the Jets and 49ers for the Colts to take that position.

So your New England Patriots are still looking at a likely second seed in the AFC for the post-season. Now all they have to do is stop turning the ball over and start covering guys with someone other than Earthwind Moreland and who knows; they might just make some noise in the playoffs.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "All three 12-1 teams had trap* games this weekend, and all three game were much closer than most of the experts thought they would be. Maybe now the press will stop mocking Belichick when he says that winning in the NFL isn’t easy. A 12-1 record didn’t buy much respect for anyone this weekend."

* A trap game is one where your team might have a tendency to look past the game to a tough game the next week. This was coined by none other than Bill Parcells.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-2!

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