The New England Patriots didn't have any interest in being world-beaters Sunday. They thought they could come in, employ a conservative strategy and scrape by a Miami Dolphins team that appeared to have checked out months ago.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 350 yards and two touchdowns to lead Miami to a shocking 20-10 victory over New England that puts the Patriots in jeopardy of losing the AFC's top seed.
With a chance to lock up the No. 1 spot with a win for the second straight week, New England once again sputtered. Quarterback Tom Brady threw for a season-low 134 yards, and the Patriots were outgained 438-196.
Mike Reiss of ESPN.com was not impressed:
Mike Reiss @MikeReiss
Dolphins 20, Patriots 10. It's a final. Not the way the Patriots wanted to go into playoffs. Lackluster, uninspiring football.2016-1-3 21:09:21
While New England clinched a first-round bye two weeks ago, it will now fall to the AFC's No. 2 seed if the Denver Broncos are victorious Sunday. The Broncos, who shocked the Patriots in overtime during their regular-season matchup, host a 4-11 San Diego Chargers team with little to play for.
More concerning than the loss itself is the fact New England's offense has looked inept for two straight weeks. It gained a combined 123 yards on 49 carries against the New York Jets and Dolphins, which is a problem given its concerted effort to going back to the well.
The Patriots spent most of Sunday, particularly the first half, grinding out a series of low-yardage runs. Brady threw only five times, his fewest as a starter in a first half, per NFL on CBS. Meanwhile, running backs Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden carried a heavy load without much success. New England had one drive of more than 40 yards in the first 30 minutes; it was almost as if the Patriots were trying to run out the clock on the regular season.
Paul Perillo of Patriots Football Weekly highlighted the strategy:
Paul Perillo @pfwpaul
Evidently the Patriots want to win by running and keeping Brady in one piece.2016-1-3 18:26:25
New England's game plan became understandable when Brady briefly showed signs of an ankle injury. The signal-caller hobbled off the field in the second quarter after taking an ugly hit from Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who went low after right tackle Marcus Cannon pulled him down by grabbing his helmet. The injury proved minor, and Brady stayed in the game. But it was a scary moment as a worst-case scenario played out in the minds of Patriots fans.
HBO's Bill Simmons was apoplectic:
Bill Simmons @BillSimmons
Shdhdhc cndhs sqwpghds nsdfkhg RT @MikeReiss: Tom Brady was flexing his right leg out after absorbing that hit to the right leg/knee area.2016-1-3 18:48:55
New England threw the ball more in the second half, but its attack was still surprisingly vanilla.
The Patriots' longest pass of the game came on a 68-yard play during which running back James White did nearly all the work, and a good majority of Brady's throws were checkdowns. It was clear offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Co. thought New England could keep things close to the vest while still finding a way to win.
They were wrong.
The Dolphins spent most of the game coming up short, though they found regular success on offense. They went into the half with 10 points despite having three drives of eight or more plays. Miami had three more promising drives sputter in the second half before it put things together. Midway through the fourth quarter, Tannehill led the Dolphins 82 yards in six plays, a drive he capped with a two-yard pass to tight end Jordan Cameron for the game-winning score.
Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald was impressed:
Adam Beasley @AdamHBeasley
Since I'm the known Tannehill sympathizer, I'll say this: He's played pretty well today.2016-1-3 20:05:46
Tannehill also came up with big plays on the drive that helped ice the game. He scrambled for 19 yards on 3rd-and-11 with three-plus minutes to go, and two plays later, he connected with Dion Sims for 22 yards to the Patriots 7-yard line. The fourth-year pro had perhaps his best all-around game of the season Sunday, and he clinched his second straight year of 4,000 or more yards through the air.
Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown. Parker's rookie campaign was largely a bust as he acclimated to NFL competition, but he had 80 or more receiving yards in four of his final six games.
Whoever winds up taking the head coaching job in Miami will need to develop the Tannehill-Parker rapport—especially given Tannehill's inconsistency on deep throws.
New England's problems are more immediate. The Patriots clearly miss LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis in the backfield, as Jackson, Bolden and White have not been able to find nearly as much success, and it's limited New England's playbook. With Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman also nursing injuries, the Patriots face an uphill climb to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Brady commented on his injury status, per Adam Kurkjian of the Boston Herald: "I'm pretty sore, yeah. But I'll be all right."
The Patriots quarterback helped elucidate the reasoning behind the team's game plan: "I think we always want to be balanced with what we do. Sometimes it becomes more proportionate from pass-wise to run-wise and vice-versa. We're going to have to do both of those things well in a couple weeks, regardless of who we play. We're going to have to run it well, throw it well. Everyone's going to have to contribute, take advantage of the opportunities when we get them."
Tannehill seemed optimistic despite a lost season, per the Associated Press (via Fox Sports): "It wasn't the season we wanted to have, but you get to leave with a good taste in your mouth, and that's what we wanted."
New England head coach Bill Belichick was clearly unhappy with his team's play, per Kurkjian: "We've got a lot of work to do."
Special teams star Matthew Slater said the Patriots "need the extra week," per Kevin Duffy of Mass Live. Slater added: "We need to start playing a lot better than we have here in the last few weeks. I don't think we played well enough to win. The defense played pretty well, but offensively and the kicking game we didn't do enough to win."
Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter.