Sunday, December 29, 2019

Dolphins Stun Patriots 27-24, No Playoff Bye

The Patriots got outfoxed by the Dolphins, losing the division home game 27-24. Meanwhile the Kansas City Chiefs won, dropping the Patriots to the #3 playoff seed. The loss was huge, meaning no playoff Bye week, no two-game road to the Super Bowl, likely two road wins to get to the big game at all, and just about no margin for error. Next week the Tennessee Titans come to town for a win-or-go-home tilt in Gillette Stadium.

There was plenty of good and bad from the Dolphins game. But the main questions are: how did this happen? and who is to blame for the loss? The unsatisfying answers are probably that it was the entire team. However, that won't stop me from delving deeper into exactly what went wrong and what it means going forward.


1. Brian Flores and Chad O'Shea

Credit where it is due. Miami head coach Brian Flores had his team ready to go, kept them in the game despite their season being long over, and never assumed he was overmatched against a team with 8 more wins than him. There was talk of tanking in South Florida this season. But I knew in my bones that Flores would never sign-on for that -- this game proved it.

When he left New England for Miami, I predicted that the next time Bill Belichick didn't win the AFC East, it would be Brian Flores atop the division. This game only validates my instinct that Flores is the real deal. And he will have a team that threatens the Patriots dominance within two years.

Also credit to Miami offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea. He emptied the playbook to make every possession count. He never panicked and didn't put his QB in a position to make the big mistakes he has historically made against the Patriots.

2. Bill Belichick

Unlike O'Shea, Belichick did not do everything to maximize his possessions. As the first half drew to a close, he could have used a timeout to give his team the ball with about 1:35 on the clock. Instead he kept the timeout and allowed the Dolphins to run down the clock. The result was the Patriots got the ball with less than a minute to go.

And even with that, Belichick seemed content to run out the clock. Granted this season the team does not have a quick-strike offense. But IMO he should have at least tried to get in position for a field goal. Those potential three points would have come in handy in a game they lost by exactly that many.

Additionally, the gadget plays seemed to catch the Patriots completely off-guard. But O'Shea coached for the Patriots for years, so they should have known something was coming. (Note: one one flea-flicker, they played it perfectly, and the receiver ran the ball instead of throwing it -- and of course he got 11 yards and a first down.)

BB gets adulation when he wins; today he gets blame for the loss.

3. Defensive play-calling

I don't study the "all-22" film, but I don't remember a game this season where the Patriots played as much zone as they against Miami. A very strange choice, given their dominant season playing largely man-coverage.

Maybe it was due to injuries in the secondary. Maybe the coaches expected Ryan Fitzpatrick to toss up a few jump-balls for interceptions. Maybe they just expected the Dolphins to pack it in.

Whatever the reason, the defensive play-calling was far too passive going against a team as offensively limited as Miami.

4. Offensive play-calling and execution

The Patriots ran fo 5.0 yards per carry and 135 yards. But unlike their previous two games, they did not stick with the run to wear down the other team and control the ball. It was especially problematic in the sequence leading to the Patriots lone turnover. They started the game with three runs and eight passes, the eight being intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Later in the game they found some balance and scored on four of seven drives. But by then, the damage had been done and the Dolphins were convinced they could win.

5. Complacency

Years ago Bill Parcells warned of "trap games," where players had already begun thinking about their next opponent and overlooked the one right in front of them. If ever a game fit that description, it was this one.


1. Tom Brady

His pick-six was a killer, and he just floated the ball out there on that play. He also over-threw Mohamed Sanu on a third-down play and missed several other open receivers.

2. Stephon Gilmore

A supposed candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Gilmore got lit up by the Dolphins best receiver, DeVante Parker. Granted, some of it was because they were in zone- instead of man-coverage. But Gilmore got caught looking into the backfield on a long gainer up the sideline and lost his man over the middle another time.

You know a corner is having a bad day when he leads the team in tackles, especially when a bunch of them were his guy in coverage.

3. Mohamed Sanu

A play before Brady's interception, Sanu was wide open over the middle and Brady hit him right in the hands in-stride. If Sanu caught it, he would have gained 7+ yards on first down, and maybe the Patriots run the ball for the first down. But instead, it clanged off his hands and fell to the ground incomplete.

Without that drop, maybe Brady never throws the killer pick. Maybe...

4. Marcus Cannon

He chose a bad time to revert to three-years-ago form, but Cannon had his worst or second-worst game of the season, giving up pressure around the corner on too many plays. As a right tackle he doesn't face the best pass rusher, but on Sunday it looked like he was.

5. The rest of the secondary

Fitzpatrick's statlines from the first and second Pats games this year:

  • 11 of 21 (52.4%) for 89 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs, and a 23.8 QB rating
  • 28 of 41 (68.3%) for 320 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, and a 99.6 QB rating

The entire secondary should be embarrassed about this.

Other thoughts

1. Why don't the Patriots use James White more? Two carries for four yards and just three passing targets in the game; all in the second half. If they are saving him for the playoffs, they blew it -- because no amount of rest makes up for missing out on the playoff Bye.

2. Usually former assistants of Belichick's clip him in their first game as head coaches against the Hoodie. This was Flores' second game, but either way, BB is just .500 (12-12) against head coaches who coached under him at some point.

3. Head man Bill Belichick might be spending too much time with the defense. Because his in-game mastery is showing some cracks this year.

He wasn't aggressive at the end of the first half of games against Dallas and Miami, screwed up his challenges against the Chiefs, and the team has had some uncharacteristic brain-cramps (multiple penalties on kickoffs, too many men on the field penalties, etc.).

4. On the plus side of things, the running game was effective again, N'Keal Harry continued to grow into the receiver role, and kicker Nick Folk was perfect yet again. I guess there is always a silver lining...

Where does that leave us? Having to play next weekend instead of getting a week off. Those injuries to Julian Edelman, Brady, Sanu, Jonthan Jones, and Jason McCourty will have to heal in the off-season. Because the playoffs are upon us, and it's all hands on deck.

Biggest on-going issue: Health in the secondary. If the secondary isn't great, the pass rush doesn't look as formidable, and the medium-zone throws against linebackers get a lot easier.

Please have the entire secondary in a huge ice-bath every day after practice. Pretty please... with sugar on top :D

Non-Brady MVP: Danny Shelton was a beast against the run (and the Pats allowed just 2.9 yards per carry) and had six tackles on the day.

Statistical Oddity: Miami head coach Brian Flores went 5-11 in his first year at the helm there. Note that Bill Belichick had the exact same record in his first season with the Patriots (the 2000 season). (Trivia question: Which team handed Belichick his last loss that season, and what was the final score of that game? Answer below.)

Water-cooler wisdom: "Keep telling the Patriots they've never gotten to the Super Bowl without a Bye -- it'll be on their bulletin board all week."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 12-4 & 0-0!

PPS. Trivia answer:
Belichick lost the last game of the 2000 season to the Miami Dolphins. The score was identical to yesterday's loss: 27-24. I know, it's a little bit creepy, isn't it?

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