After the Denver Broncos' Thursday night loss to the San Diego Chargers, the New England Patriots had the No. 1 seed in the AFC within their control. All they had to do was win out, and it would be theirs, by way of their 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos on Nov. 24. The downside to that scenario was that Tom Brady's team would have to win Sunday without tight end Rob Gronkowski -- who will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury -- and receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins against a Miami Dolphins team that simply won't go away.
The Patriots actually had a 20-17 lead late in the fourth quarter, but the Dolphins countered Brady's 24-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with a 14-yard Ryan Tannehill scoring throw to running back Marcus Thigpen with 1:21 left. That 24-20 final held up despite New England's frantic last-minute drive, which ended with four incomplete Brady passes to his receivers in the end zone, and a fifth pass that wound up in the hands of Dolphins safety Michael Thomas -- a player who had been signed off the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad on Dec. 10.
"We made some good plays and we made plenty of s----y plays," Brady said in a short and terse post-game press conference. "Thank you."
Thomas was far more ebullient, as one would expect.
"I can't explain how I feel right now," he said. "I just thank my teammates and coaches for trusting me and putting me out there in that type of situation. It's like some dream stuff ... I just got out here Tuesday, and everybody was trying to catch me up to speed, and I just thank them for trusting me."
The win put the Dolphins at 8-6, while the 10-4 Pats will have to hope for help if the AFC road to the Super Bowl is to go through Foxboro. It also ended a seven-game Miami losing streak against New England, and put the Dolphins at 5-2 since Jonathan Martin left the team in a bullying scandal on Oct. 31.
"I think they’re a disciplined, tough football team," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of the Dolphins on Wednesday. "I think the media blew a lot of that out of proportion and all the hype and everything, but that didn’t derail them in any way. They’ve been on track. I think just watching them on film, if you just watch them play on film, you wouldn’t have any sense that whatever else has been in the media and that kind of thing, that that’s affected the football team. They’ve just gone out there and played very, very competitively every week. They’ve lost several real close games and had a couple plays gone differently for them, they’d have nine or 10 wins too. That’s the team I see. I see a real good football team."
New England fell short of its second late-game comeback in as many weeks -- it beat the Browns 27-26 with two touchdowns in the final 61 seconds on Dec. 8. But this time, it was Miami's secondary, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who turned things in the opposite direction. Brady threw for 355 yards, but it took him 55 passing attempts to do so, and he managed just two touchdowns as Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola combined for just one touchdown on 33 total targets. Tannehill did more with fewer chances, throwing for three touchdowns and 312 yards on 37 attempts. It was a banner game for the second-year quarterback, who has clearly progressed this season.
"We see him as a quarterback in this league that is getting better," Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib said of Tannehill this week. "He’s working, man, and you can definitely see the improvements with them winning four of the last six games or something like that. You can just see it. You saw it last year, you see it this year. So that’s how we view him, man; as a quarterback on the up, [on the] rise. He improves every week."
Receiver Mike Wallace, who has disappointed at times this season after signing a five-year, $60 million contract in March, had one of his best games in Miami, catching six passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. Tannehill also hit running back Daniel Thomas for a score.
The Broncos are back in the top spot in the AFC, and the Patriots are left with some questions to answer on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the Dolphins keep rolling along.