But, come crunch time, the better team took control.
With 8:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, Tom Brady engineered a 16-play, 77-yard drive that took 7:18 off the clock. By the time the Dolphins got the ball back, there was only 1:10 remaining and they trailed by 10 points.
Even if the Dolphins' offense had some explosive elements, that deficit is nearly impossible to overcome.
Although this loss all but destroys the Dolphins' playoff hopes, they deserve credit for sticking with such a superior team. This is the first time in four weeks the Patriots scored fewer than 37 points, and Tom Brady finished with a pedestrian 74.8 quarterback rating.
As always, there's positives and negatives to take away. Here are your winners and losers from Week 13.
The Dolphins' offense may lack playmakers, but that's certainly not the case for the defense.
Reshad Jones entered Sunday's game as Pro Football Focus' top-rated safety and he justified that ranking with 10 tackles, one sack, an incredible interception and a pass deflection.
Jones' presence is felt in the secondary and at the line of scrimmage, where he blew up a pair of Stevan Ridley runs late in the fourth quarter.
His sack also prevented the Patriots from scoring what would have been a game-sealing touchdown. Instead, New England was forced to settle for a field goal. Although that field goal did ultimately put the game out of reach for the Dolphins, Jones made a tremendous play that put his team in better position to win.
If Jones doesn't earn a Pro Bowl nod, there's a flaw in the voting process.
Jake Long headed to the locker room in the first quarter and never returned to the playing field. Instead, he came back to the sidelines in street clothes with a bag of ice wrapped onto his left triceps.
His diagnosis is bleak:
The Dolphins fear they have lost LT Jake Long for season with torn triceps, sources say. He'll have MRI on Mon., but "it doesn't look good."— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) December 2, 2012
#Dolphins players in the locker room were talking as if Jake Long is done for the year.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) December 2, 2012
Long's contract expires after this season and his injury further complicates an already complex dilemma. Durability has become a major weakness for Long, who has dealt with relatively major injuries for the last three years. On top of that, he hasn't played like a top-flight left tackle this season, so why would Miami pay him like one?
There's no guarantee the Dolphins will even try to bring Long back. If they do, it shouldn't be for any significant sum of money.
When Jake Long left the game with a left triceps injury, the Dolphins moved Jonathan Martin to left tackle and plugged Nate Garner in at right tackle.
Martin started 35 games at left tackle during his career at Stanford, and that experience saved him:
Jonathan Martin said he hadn't played left tackle one snap in practice before taking it over in the game. "Muscle memory."— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 2, 2012
Although he has been a weak link at right tackle, Martin looked excellent back in his old position. With Jake Long possibly done for the season, Martin will get an extended look at left tackle.
If he can play as well as he did on Sunday for the rest of the season, the Dolphins will have to think long and hard about moving forward with him as their left tackle.
Please, understand that I'm not hating on Ryan Tannehill by any means.
This segment is written on a game-by-game basis, and Sunday, Tannehill wasn't at his best.
He sailed a potential a touchdown pass over the head of Brian Hartline and later underthrew him on another potential touchdown pass. Tannehill completed only 13-of-29 passes (45 percent completion rate) and finished a 66.2 QB rating.
While the Patriots may be well-coached, their defense still ranked 27th in the NFL entering Sunday's game.
Finally, Tannehill sacrificed his body on a pair of scrambles. Don't get me wrong, I love Tannehill's gutsiness and competitiveness. But there comes a point when a quarterback has to protect himself.
On one of those runs, he took a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit from Kyle Arrington that could've easily given him a concussion.
Tannehill will be just fine, but, again, this wasn't his finest hour.
Only one Dolphins player caught more than two passes: Brian Hartline.
As usual, Ryan Tannehill leaned heavily on Hartline. Even though the pair connected five times for 85 yards, their output could've been significantly higher had Tannehill not overthrown and underthrown Hartline on a pair of deep balls.
Regardless, Hartline gave New England's secondary trouble throughout the afternoon.
At one point in the fourth quarter, on consecutive plays, he torched Kyle Arrington (was wide open but Tannehill underthrew him), caught a 22-yard third-down conversion and drew a 14-yard pass interference penalty.
Hartline won't enter next season as the Dolphins' No. 1 wideout, but that should be a blessing. Imagine what he can do playing against No. 2 cornerbacks on a weekly basis.
Jimmy Wilson was tasked with covering Wes Welker.
Things got ugly quickly.
Welker caught 12 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. At one point in the second quarter, he was on pace to threaten Brandon Marshall's NFL record for receptions in a game (23). Luckily for Wilson, the Patriots mostly abandoned the pass in the fourth quarter.
Wilson was also penalized for roughing the punter in the second quarter, which gave the Patriots an automatic first down. New England proceeded to march down the field and score a touchdown that extended its lead to 11 points. Though, in Wilson's defense, it would've been nearly impossible for him to avoid hitting Pats punter Zoltan Mesko.
Covering Welker is a daunting task for even the league's elite cornerbacks, so it's no surprise Wilson struggled. However, this should serve as a stern reminder that the Dolphins desperately need help at cornerback or they won't be able to stop any pass-happy offense.
Just when everybody was ready to give up on Sean Smith, he rebounds with a great performance.
This is far too typical of Smith, who has come to define inconsistency.
He has become a player of two extremes—he's either phenomenal or terrible.
On Sunday, he was phenomenal. Smith essentially removed Brandon Lloyd from the game and Tom Brady hardly even bothered looking his way. In fact, Brady targeted Lloyd only once, and it came late in the fourth quarter.
As encouraging as this performance was, there's no reason to put faith in Smith. Like he has done so many times before, he's bound to follow this up with a letdown. But, with his contract expiring after this season, maybe the light switch will finally come on. Just don't bank on it.
For the third consecutive week, a special teams miscue cost the Dolphins early.
Two weeks ago, Leodis McKelvin returned a punt for a touchdown. Last week, Leon Washington returned a kickoff for at touchdown. And, this week, Brandon Fields muffed a low snap and was tackled at Miami's 12-yard line, making it easy for the Patriots to jump out to an early 7-0 lead.
Also, when the Dolphins attempted an onside kick at the end of the fourth quarter, the coverage team didn't get more than a handful of yards downfield. Brandon Lloyd caught the ball with ease and went down untouched.
The Dolphins' special teams are having an up-and-down season.
Unfortunately, it has been mostly down in recent weeks.