MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The New England Patriots have turned to the “next man up” and had continued success, which almost makes it a surprise when it doesn’t happen.
Personnel losses finally caught up to the Patriots, as playing without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was serving a one-game NFL suspension, had the offense out of sync (0-for-11 on third down) and quarterback Tom Brady off his game. Couple that with inspired play from the Dolphins, who deserve plenty of credit, and it was a disappointing night for the Patriots as their eight-game winning streak was snapped and an opportunity to clinch the AFC East was missed.
With a highly anticipated AFC showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday, the performance serves as a reminder the depleted Patriots are beatable when they are outcoached and don’t play their best. It also added to their history of struggles in South Florida, as Brady drops to 7-9 lifetime in Miami.
As bad as it looked at times, the Patriots (10-3) can still put themselves in prime position for a top seed in the AFC playoffs with a win on the road against the Steelers (11-2), as they would own the head-to-head tie-breaker over Pittsburgh.
But to do so, they’ll need to quickly move past what unfolded against the Dolphins, as the struggles with “next man up” extended to the defense as well. Going without leading sacker Trey Flowers and top playing-time linebacker Kyle Van Noy — and then losing defensive tackle Alan Branch to a knee injury in the second quarter — had the front seven undermanned and unable to provide consistent resistance against quarterback Jay Cutler.
More than anything, though, they’ll need a better Brady.
Without go-to-guy Gronkowski as an option in the middle of the field, and on third down, Brady never truly looked comfortable and at times was just unloading the ball deep. The Dolphins’ defense, which was carved up by Brady in a 35-17 loss on Nov. 26, was a step ahead.
In the first half, 10 of Brady’s 11 completions were to running backs, with the other to tight end Dwayne Allen. Other than a pass interference penalty drawn by receiver Brandin Cooks that set up the team’s first touchdown, there was little impact from the team’s receiving corps.
The Patriots entered the game with a 20-5 record in games without Gronkowski, although having receiver Julian Edelman in the past helped soften that blow. Since 2010, when both Gronkowski and Edelman haven’t been on the field, Brady has a total QBR of 50, compared to 77 with at least one of them on the field.
Fortunately for the Patriots, Gronkowski will be back next Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Without him, Brady and the offense didn’t look the same.