The New England Patriots have spent a lot of this season looking distinctly un-Patriot-like. They’ve lost to good teams, struggled to move the ball and, in the strangest twist, Tom Brady has actually looked his age. (He’s 42, which is a really normal age for adult people and a very abnormal age for adult people playing quarterback in the NFL.)
However the long-term implications of those issues were simple to ignore because they were still 12-3 going into the final Sunday of the season. All they had to do was beat the lowly Miami Dolphins to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The problem was that there was one quarterback on the field at Gillette Stadium who played like he was able to leading a team on a long playoff run. The other quarterback was Tom Brady.
In a twist that was as stunning as it was telling, the Patriots lost to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins 27-24 on the final day of the regular season. That means when the playoffs begin next weekend there will be an unusual sight: the Patriots having to play on wild-card weekend. The loss dropped them to the No. 3 seed within the AFC, setting up a matchup with the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans.
The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers earned byes in the NFC. The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs did within the AFC. The Patriots didn’t because they couldn’t beat the Dolphins.
“I certainly didn’t do a good enough job,” Brady stated afterward. “We’ve got to do better next week.”
Brady isn’t used to excited about the week after Week 17. The Patriots have so consistently made sustained runs in the playoffs in large part because they’ve performed well enough in the regular season to keep away from this exact result. They’ve performed in three times as many Super Bowls (9) than they’ve wild-card games (three) within the Brady era. The last time was 2009.
Missing out on the bye has a dual effect. They have to play one more game in order to reach the Super Bowl, and even if they win, they’ll need to play on the road in the divisional round in Kansas City.
They’ve already lost to Kansas City this season, and all of New England’s first three defeats felt like referendums. They lost to the Ravens, Houston Texans and the Chiefs. When Brady was outplayed by Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, respectively, each appeared to signal an irreversible generational shift that the Patriots were, at finest, attempting to postpone for another 12 months.
Sunday’s loss held a different sort of message. Baltimore, Houston and Kansas City won their respective divisions. Mahomes is the reigning MVP, Jackson is a shoo-in to win this year and Watson isn’t especially far behind either of them. In the meantime, the Dolphins spent the last yr trading away their finest players in a transparent concession that they weren’t especially concerned with winning football games in 2019.
The loss was jarring because New England had never experienced something like this during its two decades of dominance. It was favored to beat Miami by two touchdowns, and during Bill Belichick’s time as head coach, the Patriots had never lost a game when they were favored by at least 14 points. Till Sunday.
But the concerning part for the reigning Super Bowl champions was that the loss didn’t appear to be an aberration. When the Dolphins beat the Patriots a year in the past, it ended on such a fluky play that it was immediately dubbed “The Miami Miracle.” This time the tables were turned, and New England was the team desperately attempting to lateral the ball at the last second. However instead of ending up in the end zone, the play sputtered in a microcosm of what the Patriots offense has looked like for much of the season.
Brady completed the game 16-for-29 for 221 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception—a costly pick-six. On the other side of the field, Fitzpatrick threw for 320 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions. Brady was outplayed by a man who’s extra well-known for his beard and attending Harvard than winning football games.
By any goal metric, Brady has performed poorly this season. His 6.6 yards per try rank 27th within the league out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. And those numbers have gotten worse over the course of the season: he’s averaging just 5.9 yards per try since the start of November.
There are many explanations for this. The offensive line hasn’t been as steady as it once was, and Brady is dealing with a bare cupboard of weapons that they’ve tried, with little success, to replenish since Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. The last time they performed Miami, within the season’s second week, it was the one game Antonio Brown performed for New England earlier than he was released. Since then, first-round pick N’Keal Harry hasn’t broken via after beginning the season injured, whereas midseason commerce acquisition Mohamed Sanu hasn’t changed the paradigm either.
Then there’s Brady, who has began the most NFL ever games at quarterback as a 42-year-old. However the same instincts that allowed him to play at an elite stage for so long—playing fastidiously and avoiding hits—might now be enjoying a role in his demise: Brady leads the league in throwing the ball away.
Brady’s woes didn’t come out of nowhere. His yards per try have dipped yearly since 2015, and his numbers have been middling a year ago. But it surely was easy to overlook about that. He outdueled Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship last year, and a few weeks later it didn’t matter a lot when the New England offense scored only one touchdown.
That’s as a result of the Patriots beat the Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII, and Brady wanted a second hand to fit his sixth Super Bowl ring.