After what seemed like the perfect game to exorcise their demons, the Patriots somehow managed to lose to the Dolphins in a 34-33 heartbreaker that will take the cake for their toughest loss ever in Miami during the Tom Brady era.
With seven seconds remaining and two laterals on the play, Kenyan Drake completed a 52-yard touchdown run to give the Dolphins a miracle victory while keeping their playoff hopes alive. It was a play that we've never seen New England give up during the Brady era.
Even the Dolphins running back had a hard time putting the play into words.
"It's just something that we practiced every Saturday in walkthroughs," Drake said. "Obviously, in a situation (like that), you never know what would happen. It was just by the grace of God we were able to hold our composure and just make a play."
That's all well and good, but the story here isn't Drake or the fact that the Dolphins kept their playoff hopes alive with their 7-6 record entering Week 15. The story is the Patriots' struggles in Miami and how this latest loss could be what keeps them from making a run at a No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
While the Patriots were busy missing tackles on Drake's game-winning TD run, the Kansas City Chiefs overcame a seven-point deficit late in the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens to emerge victorious with a 27-24 win in overtime. The win pushed Kansas City to an 11-2 record compared with New England's 9-4 mark.
The Patriots do hold the tiebreaker over the Chiefs by virtue of their 43-40 win over Kansas City in Week 6. However it would take a major collapse for New England to overtake Kansas City for the AFC's No. 1 seed. The Chiefs do have remaining games against the Los Angeles Chargers (in Kansas City) and at the Seattle Seahawks, but New England has to travel to Pittsburgh to face a Steelers squad looking to hold off the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC North title in Week 15.
As usual, the Patriots weren't panicking following a loss that dropped their record to 1-5 in Miami over the last six years.
"Well, we get back to work. We get back to work. If they didn't make that play at the end, we'd do the same thing," Brady said. "It's disappointing when we lose games. I think we all realize we could have done a better job in certain areas. I wish I could have done a better job on certain plays, but that's football. We 'll just get back to work this week and try to go beat Pittsburgh."
In case you didn't notice, Patrick Mahomes is the hottest quarterback in the league and the Chiefs lead the NFL in scoring with 37.0 points per game. Traveling to Arrowhead to play the Chiefs in the playoffs isn't exactly an ideal situation for the Patriots. However, making the Chiefs to travel to Foxborough, where the Patriots are just about unbeatable in January, is a different story.
For those who aren't aware, the Pats haven't lost in the playoffs in New England since the 2012 AFC Championship Game against the Ravens. They're 8-0 at home in the postseason ever since that loss; for Brady's entire career, the Patriots are 19-3 (.863 winning percentage) in Foxborough in the playoffs. However, New England is just 3-4 when playing away in January.
In other words, the difference between playing at home and away is noticeable for most teams. For New England, it's absolutely monumental.
In maintaining the Pats' typical cool, coach Bill Belichick downplayed the 34-33 loss to Miami when asked if it felt "ominous" toward the end considering the Patriots' missed field goal kicks and Brady's sack at the end of the first half, which took three more points off the board.
"I don't know. We just tried to make enough plays to win, but we didn't," Belichick said.
We're so accustomed to seeing the Patriots in the postseason every year that we just assume they'll be good enough to make it back to the Super Bowl. Heck, Brady has been to eight Super Bowls, the most appearances for any QB in NFL history. The thinking for a lot of people then becomes that it doesn't matter whether the Patriots have home-field advantage, as long as they're in the playoffs. If they're in the playoffs, they're a lock to make it back to the Super Bowl, right?
Except there's two major things preventing that from happening: The Patriots' lack of success on the road in January and the fact that this 2018 squad is the worst offensive unit we've seen from the franchise in this entire decade. Entering their matchup against Miami, the Patriots ranked seventh in offense and 17th in passing touchdowns.
Over the course of the past eight seasons, the Patriots have never ranked any worse than fourth in points per game and they've ranked worse than sixth in passing touchdowns just once since 2010.
Obviously, we can never dismiss Brady and Belichick. They're the greatest quarterback-coach combo in NFL history, and their track record speaks for itself. How many times has this team been dismissed after tough losses and infamous scandals such as "Spygate" and "Deflategate," only to bounce back and prove everybody wrong?
However, the cracks are starting to show. And while the Patriots still remain an elite team capable of giving any team trouble in the postseason, the rest of the league is starting to catch up. In fact, several teams have more-than-capable quarterbacks who have exceeded Brady's level of play in the aforementioned Mahomes, New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees and Los Angeles Rams' Jared Goff.
New England plays for Lombardi Trophies. There are no ifs or buts about it. They play to win Super Bowls. In order to do that, you need to at least advance to the Big Game.
The biggest advantage the Pats would have had to a third straight Super Bowl appearance would have been the playoffs running through Foxborough yet again. Despite their flaws on offense, their lack of continuity with their receiving weapons, and their bend-but-don't break defense, the Patriots would be nearly unbeatable in New England in January -- even for a high-powered team such as the Chiefs.
But now? The Patriots are extremely vulnerable. Vulnerable to the point where it feels like the chance to play in Super Bowl LIII is slipping away.