Tom Brady made his patented fourth-quarter comeback. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Ryan Tannehill had one up his sleeve as well.
Tannehill found Marcus Thigpen in the end zone from 14 yards out with 1:15 left in the fourth quarter, and the Miami defense held on the Patriots' subsequent possession to earn a 24-20 victory over New England at Sun Life Stadium in Week 15.
Playing without their top two cornerbacks, the Dolphins struggled mightily to cover the New England passing game despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski. Throughout the second half, Brady found Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman on short and intermediate passes.
After Tannehill's touchdown strike, Brady took the ball with three timeouts and just over a minute remaining. According to Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Miami's Jimmy Wilson was well aware of Brady's late-game heroics:
Jimmy Wilson admitted his first thought when the Dolphins scored the TD to get the lead was, "we scored too quick." The power of Brady.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 15, 2013
Trying to atone for its inexperienced pass-rushers, Miami sent multiple rushers, hit Brady on nearly every pass attempt and did everything it could to disrupt plays.
But in the end, it was a member of the Dolphins' inexperienced secondary that pulled off the game-winning plays. Former 49ers practice squad member Michael Thomas broke up a first-down pass that would've been a 19-yard touchdown to Amendola and then picked Brady off in the end zone with two seconds remaining to cap off the thrilling victory.
Tannehill had this to say about New England's final possession, per Jesse Agler of thefinsiders.com:
Tannehill on final Patriots possession: "Longest 75 seconds of my life."— Jesse Agler (@finsjesse) December 15, 2013
It was the Dolphins' first win over the Patriots in their last eight tries, and ESPN's James Walker points out that fact wasn't lost on Dolphins fans:
There is a lot of energy in the bowels of Sun Life Stadium. That was easily #Dolphins' biggest win in years.— James Walker (@JamesWalkerNFL) December 15, 2013
The victory gave Joe Philbin and Co., who have faced massive turmoil throughout the 2013 season, a half-game lead for the No. 6 seed in the AFC. They will await the result of Monday night's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions to see whether they are in sole possession of the final playoff spot or will stay tied.
Regardless of that result, the Dolphins have to feel great about how their team has fought back. Tannehill's pass to Thigpen gave Miami its third straight victory and second in a row that came down to one possession. The Dolphins' last significant drive was a nine-play, 60-yard jaunt that saw Philbin put faith in his young quarterback, going for a 4th-and-5 at their own 45-yard line despite having all three timeouts.
Miami scored three times in its four significant drives in the second half, continuing momentum gained just before the half after the Patriots struck out to a 10-0 lead. Tannehill completed 25 of 37 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns, his second straight three-touchdown contest. He also has three 300-yard outings in his last four games.
Mike Wallace proved Tannehill's favorite target, catching six balls for 105 yards. His 39-yard touchdown reception with 32 seconds remaining in the second quarter made the score 10-7 in New England's favor and arguably shifted the momentum of a then-stilted contest.
For the Patriots, the loss strikes a critical blow for the team's hopes for home-field advantage. With Denver's loss to San Diego on Thursday, the Patriots would have taken the top spot in the AFC with a triumph in Miami. Instead, they'll also be intently watching a prime-time NFL telecast. If the Bengals defeat the division-rival Steelers Sunday night, New England drops all the way back to the No. 3 seed—losing its first-round bye in the process.
Either way, this game represents a strong shift in what to expect from the AFC East going forward.
With Gronkowski's ACL tear ruining the Patriots' downfield passing game, Brady was left to chuck a series of underneath throws against a vulnerable secondary. Edelman caught 13 passes for 139 yards, including the 24-yard touchdown grab that gave New England a 20-17 lead with 4:07 remaining, but that was his long catch of the contest. Amendola (10 catches, 131 yards) and Josh Boyce each represented Brady's longest pitch-and-catch at 30 yards.
Although his final stat line (34-of-55 for 364 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) looks fine, Brady's offense looked far more like a team trying to patch its way through the week. With a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality constantly pervading the Boston area, Sunday's loss is a bleak reminder of just how much Gronkowski means to the Patriots offense.
And if the Dolphins have anything to say about it, it's also a reminder of how loud the footsteps are getting from other AFC East squads.
Tom Brady (QB, New England Patriots): B+
The post-Gronkowski picture looks much like the one before he arrived this season for Brady. New England doesn't have any downfield weapons on its roster. Both Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson were inactive alongside Gronk, and it showed from the opening snap.
Brady had to hold his attempts a beat or two longer than he likely would have wanted, as guys couldn't get open, and the Dolphins were able to bring their safeties in close to the line. The result was a couple hits here and there—especially once Miami knew nothing was going on down the field.
A good amount of Brady's struggles early on were personnel-related. No matter how great a quarterback is, he can't create talented skill-position players. But the brilliant thing about Brady is that he used to be able to create a gourmet meal out of leftovers.
All too often early in the season he looked like the 36-year-old quarterback he is. In the second half, though, he connected with Edelman enough to prove he can still prop up questionable supporting casts.
Ryan Tannehill (QB, Miami Dolphins): B+
Tannehill is rarely mentioned in the same breath as fellow 2012 draftees Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, but he's slowly carving his own niche in Miami. The second-year quarterback has been solid for the better part of a month now, flashing improved accuracy—even if he does have a propensity for turning the ball over every once in a while.
It never quite feels like you're watching a superstar with Tannehill. Everything has a process, and you can see him working his way through reads and his options on every play. That's definitely a criticism, but it's one couched in the fact he's been making the right decision more and more as the season has gone along.
Tannehill had zip and confidence on a majority of his passes, getting into a better rhythm as the game progressed. The Patriots' depleted secondary certainly played a factor, but Tannehill deserves just as much credit.
Mike Wallace (WR, Miami Dolphins): B
Wallace's contract is still a massive overpay, but he's starting to make good on at least some of his salary. He and Tannehill have connected for a touchdown in three of the Dolphins' past four games, a stretch that has coincided with their return to playoff contention.
Big plays have been few and far between. Wallace came into this week with as many receptions of 20 yards or longer (nine) as Charles Clay. He added another one to that total on his 39-yard touchdown reception, and there were a few throws where Wallace was open but Tannehill either missed him or didn't have time to make the throw.
Again, New England wasn't at full strength in its secondary (or anywhere really). Wallace has been so inconsistent in 2013 that it's hard to have much faith in him being a regular contributor in the regular season's final two weeks.
Julian Edelman (WR, New England Patriots): A
It seems anytime a Patriots player gets hurt, Edelman is usually atop the players most likely to benefit. The 5'10" spark plug was already having the best season of his career, and Gronkowski's absence is only going to make Edelman more integral to what New England is doing.
Sunday was the first example of what to expect going forward. Edelman was, at times, locked into Brady's vision. Any time he needed five or six yards, you could expect Edelman to run a route a half-yard longer than the marker and make a nifty little move to make sure he moved the chains.
That's only going to continue. The Patriots can't make plays down the field, and as long as that's the case, Edelman's ability to weave his way through traffic will be critical.
The Patriots' schedule won't get any easier, as they head to Baltimore to take on the rival Ravens next week. Baltimore eliminated New England in the AFC Championship Game last season. The Dolphins, meanwhile, should have an easier time against the Buffalo Bills.
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