All the Patriots had to do to earn their 10th consecutive first-round bye in the postseason was beat the hapless Miami Dolphins, a four-win team seemingly playing out the string on its way to a top-5 pick in next April’s NFL Draft.
To beat a Dolphins team that has won twice in Foxboro since 2001, neither instance featuring much of Tom Brady under center for New England.
And they couldn’t do it. For the first time since the 2009 season, the Patriots will be playing on wild-card weekend following a 27-24 loss in their regular season finale at Gillette Stadium.
"We didn't play the way we're capable of playing and it ended up costing us," Brady said after throwing for 221 yards, two touchdowns and a pick-six. "Just too many bad mistakes."
After James White's 13-yard touchdown reception gave New England its first lead of the game with 3:53 left in the fourth quarter, the Patriots allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick, he of his eighth NFL team, to drive the Dolphins 75 yards in 13 plays for the go-ahead score with 0:24 remaining on a pass to Mike Gesicki.
The defensive meltdown denied Brady what would have been his 46th fourth-quarter comeback between the regular and postseasons, which would have surpassed Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history.
It really wasn't a banner day for Brady and the offense, though, as has been the case for the majority of the 2019 season. Brady's pick-six, his first since Week 16 of the 2017 season, was gift-wrapped to former Patriot Eric Rowe and helped the Dolphins to a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Brady's first half was so bad, Miami's punter, who threw an incomplete pass on a fake, had a higher passer rating through 30 minutes.
Brady doesn't deserve all of the criticism, however. He dropped a fantastic 50-yard completion to Phillip Dorsett in the near the end of the first half, which set up a Sony Michel 4-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 10-all.
The Patriots defense proceeded to force their first and only three-and-out of the game, with Jamie Collins and Joejuan Williams combining to tackle Patrick Laird for no gain.
New England, equipped with all three timeouts at the moment, could have taken one and gotten the ball back with about a minute and a half on the clock. Instead, the Patriots allowed the Dolphins to bleed the clock and punt with 0:57 remaining in the half.
Back with the ball at its own 20, New England called two straight runs and headed to the locker room all square with Miami.
"We'd see what kind of field position we got, and then if we could advance the ball, then we'd take [timeouts]," Bill Belichick said. "But, we didn't want to give the ball back with their timeouts at the end of the half, either."
The potential for points certainly affected the Patriots at the end of the game, when they could have been up seven points instead of just four.
"We weren't executing great, so I can understand the decision," Brady said. "But it was a lot of things today."
Perhaps the calculus for essentially punting on its final possession of the first half was that New England would receive the second half kick. Of course, it promptly went three-and-out before ceding a nine-play, 83-yard touchdown drive for the Dolphins to fall behind 17-10.
The Patriots responded with a touchdown drive of their own, although the scoring play was representative of just how desperate measures were for New England. Brady dumped off a pass to linebacker-turned-fullback Elandon Roberts in the flats, who proceeded to twinkle-toe down the right sideline for a 38-yard touchdown.
Roberts became the first primarily defensive player since Mike Vrabel to catch a touchdown pass from Brady and the 79th overall (including the postseason), extending Brady's record of touchdown receivers.
The elation was short-lived. The teams traded punts before Miami went ahead on a 32-yard field goal from Jason Sanders with 8:29 to go in regulation.
White's touchdown reception wound up merely prolonging the inevitable. Miami's two wins at Gillette Stadium had come in Week 17 in 2005, when Brady sat for the majority of the second half as New England was locked into the four-seed, and in 2008, when Matt Cassel filled in for an injured Tom Brady and Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown ran roughshod over the Patriots with their Wildcat offense.
"It's the National Football League, I think any time that you go out onto the field, you've got to expect tough competition and understand that the game can go either way," said Matthew Slater, a member of New England's last wild-card team in 2009. "I think you've got to give a lot of credit to coach [Brian Flores] and the way he had those guys motivated to play."
Flores spent last season as New England's de facto defensive coordinator, and had been in the organization since 2004. Though the Patriots beat the Dolphins in Week 2 this season, 43-0, Flores became the latest former Belichick pupil to defeat the Jedi master in his first season since flying the coop (Matt Patricia with the Lions in 2018, Josh McDaniels with the Broncos in 2009, Eric Mangini with the Jets in 2006).
The Patriots now await their opponent for next weekend, which will be either the Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers or Oakland Raiders. The game will be at Gillette Stadium on either Saturday or Sunday.