Struggling to put away a divisional opponent at least once a year is nothing new for the Patriots, but it was still stunning to see New England limp through a poor performance against the Dolphins on Monday night, given how they had been playing of late. New England had won seven consecutive AFC East games, taken 14 consecutive road victories and had won eight straight overall. It all came to a screeching halt against a gassed-up Miami team that brought its A-game.
Credit the Dolphins for an exceptional game plan on Monday. Jay Cutler was outstanding, putting together the type of performance that helps coaches continually justify giving him $10 million to come out of retirement for a single season. When Cutler is on, he is on. And he was on Monday night, dropping dimes all over the field in a game where he severely outplayed Tom Brady. Imagine telling someone that in November.
But the bigger story here is the Patriots and how different they looked on both sides of the ball. New England couldn't pressure Cutler enough to put the frowny-faced quarterback in a weird spot and throw the Dolphins off their rhythm. The Patriots' run defense was non-existent; the Dolphins appear to have discovered a new franchise back in Kenyan Drake, who totaled 193 scrimmage yards on Monday. New England will face Le'Veon Bell next.
New England's offense was even worse, although both units were missing players. Defensively, Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers were both out, and Rob Gronkowski was missing because of a suspension. That showed up in a big way against Miami, as Brady struggled all night long. He didn't have it. And he has often not had it whenever he ends up playing at Miami. It's not the end of the world, because the Pats control their own destiny heading into Week 15.
But there are two things worth asking and monitoring:
First up, the playoffs. Home-field advantage will be on the line for New England next week against Pittsburgh. The Patriots just played their worst game of the season, by far. They are about to face one of the more dangerous offenses in the NFL. Pittsburgh's defense looked like a shell of itself against Baltimore thanks to Ryan Shazier's absence, but they can pressure opposing quarterbacks, and if you get Brady pressured, he can struggle down the field (just like everyone else). New England can easily bounce back -- it has a pretty nice history of rebounding from losses, especially when people start talking about Brady being old. They'll probably still be favored against the Steelers and it wouldn't be surprising if they rolled.
But if they don't, they could be in a bit of trouble. Obviously losing to Pittsburgh will bury any hope of having home-field advantage. The Steelers would have a two-game lead on them with two games to play and the head-to-head tiebreaker. Here's the real concern: If the Patriots lose to the Steelers, they could end up finishing at 12-4. And so could the Jaguars by winning out -- the Jags would also have the tiebreaker over the Patriots by virtue of conference record at that point. In theory, the Patriots could end up not just losing home-field advantage, but also a first-round bye.
Secondly, the MVP race. Tom Brady has been one of the top options in the MVP race through 13 weeks. But Week 14 changed things. It's late in the game to do that, maybe, but recency bias is real and if the Patriots end up not getting a bye in the playoffs, it would be hard to reward Brady with the award. It would, sorry. Things might have become wide open, actually, because Carson Wentz tore his ACL against the Rams (you can rule him out) and Russell Wilson struggled against the Jaguars (if the Seahawks miss the playoffs, you can rule him out, too).
Two candidates who stand out: Philip Rivers of the Chargers and Antonio Brown of the Steelers. A receiver has never won the Associated Press MVP award, and AB might be hurt by having Bell and Ben Roethlisberger helping his cause. If the Steelers go nuts and he chases 2,000 yards, he'll be in the conversation. Rivers' team started out 0-4 and they have a de facto division title game on Saturday night in Kansas City. If Rivers goes into KC and lights up the Chiefs' defense (350 yards, a couple of touchdowns) and Los Angeles takes the division lead, it would be insane not to put him right in the mix with Brady and Brown.
This is an odd year for the MVP, and Brady's struggles in Miami just opened things up dramatically. This race could suddenly be breathtaking to watch as some dark horse candidates emerge down the stretch.
We all know Brady as a perfectionist, but even the most perfect humans still make mistakes. And Brady made a bad one on his first throw of the night against the Dolphins, trying to hit Brandin Cooks on a post route and badly underthrowing the ball. Xavier Howard, who did a really nice job covering Cooks on the play, was right there to scoop the ball up.
This is not a new thing, either. Brady has now been intercepted in three consecutive games.
But the struggles for the Patriots in the first quarter were new. New England ended the first quarter with a whopping 2 -- yes, 2 -- yards of offense. That is the lowest total for the Patriots since the 2001 season, per the ESPN broadcast. Brady was generally driving the struggle bus all night.
He got things going a little bit late, finally hitting Cooks for a long pass to set up a field goal, but the Dolphins were just trying to prevent the Patriots from getting an opportunity to actually tie or win the game.
Credit the interceptor
We can talk about Brady and the Pats' offense looking lethargic and off-kilter all we want. But if we didn't credit Xavien Howard, the young cornerback out of Miami, for the job he did on defense Monday, it would be very poor work. He was outstanding.
Targeted six times, Howard gave up zero catches and recorded two interceptions.
He has actually been very good the past several weeks.
Xavien Howard the last 3 weeks:— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) December 12, 2017
2 catches allowed
0 yards after the catch allowed
4 pass breakups
0.0 passer rating
His second pick of the night was just filthy -- Brady tried to go deep to Cooks and didn't throw it deep enough. It still looked like Cooks would catch the ball and pick up a chunk play. Howard accelerated into the space and stole the rock.
The Ajayi trade looks OK
The Dolphins got killed for dealing Jay Ajayi, primarily because the running back had a trio of 200-yard rushing performances last season in a breakout year. But the Dolphins dealt him to the Eagles for pennies on the dollar at the trade deadline, and it turns out Adam Gase might have known what he was doing, because he's got a pretty nice player in Kenyan Drake.
The former backup at Alabama spent most of his time as a third-down back. He wasn't doing that on Monday night for Miami, proceeding to shred the Patriots defense on the ground and in the air.
Drake flashed some sick moves in the backfield, including a Madden-like spin move.
And he got way downfield for a big chunk of yardage in the passing game as well.
Drake was crazy elusive, averaging 4.63 yards after a defender got within one yard of him on the field Monday.
And he was racking up yards after contact, too.
Kenyan Drake rushing:— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) December 12, 2017
Yards Before Contact: -8
Yards After Contact: 122
Give Gase credit for having the fortitude to deal away Ajayi and give Drake, a guy who has been hidden behind the spotlight for most of his career, the credit for stepping up on the biggest stage and having a huge game.
Where does he get those wonderful toys?
The Patriots are an unusually constructed team, because Bill Belichick rarely does anything by the book. And because the Pats are willing to eschew a traditional power running game for a short-yardage passing game (that is secretly more efficient), the Pats have this wonderful collection of running backs on the roster.
Said drive featured Brady looking a little off on some throws, but making a beautiful little teardrop pass down the field -- while being heavily pressured -- to Lewis, who snaked the ball out of the air with a ridiculous one-handed grab.
After that play came a shot downfield from Brady to Cooks, who drew pass interference inside the 5-yard line and that led to Burkhead getting the ball near the goal line. He has displaced Mike Gillislee, who hasn't been active in weeks, as the go-to guy in the red zone. And he did his thing.
In the second quarter, Burkhead would bust out a big screen pass for 23 yards to help set up a field goal. And with the Patriots trailing by a substantial amount (27-10) in the fourth quarter, Brady found White for his first passing touchdown of the day, and White's third receiving touchdown of the year.
The larger point here is that the Patriots, even if they weren't perfect on offense Monday night, have a bunch of dangerous weapons out of the backfield. These guys are starting to jell and will be a problem in the postseason.
Worst. Onside. Ever.
The Patriots cut the Dolphins' lead to seven points with no timeouts and under two minutes left, and that meant a Stephen Gostkowski onside kick attempt.
In defense of Gostkowski and the Patriots, they don't have to do this very often. On the other hand, what the hell was this?
Asked about it after the game, Bill Belichick was his typically verbose self.
Q: “Bill, can you explain what happened on that onside kick?”— Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) December 12, 2017
Bill Belichick: “They recovered it.”
Can't talk about this game and not mention the fact that the Dolphins had a Santa Dolphin in the end zone at one point.
Or to point out that Jon Gruden and Guy Fieri took things down to Flavortown. Gruden seemed skeptical at first.
But he eventually caved to those radical flavors and zesty seasonings, bro.
The Dolphins aren't dead yet! Miami has three more games, and if they win out, they have a pretty good chance (around 75 percent) of making the playoffs. That isn't ideal for a four-game win streak, of course, but it is hope. The Dolphins have the Bills twice, too, which is very nice. And they will play the Bills in Buffalo at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. It's a must-win game for both teams if they want to make the playoffs.
The Patriots, obviously, are just fine when it comes to the playoffs, but they do need to beat the Steelers on Sunday in what will be the nationally televised CBS game featuring Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and Tracy Wolfson. It's going to be an incredible game -- please don't miss it. The winner probably will wind up with the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The stakes could not be bigger.