The New England Patriots aren’t accustomed to soiling themselves in public, so Sunday’s 27–24 loss to the Miami Dolphins represented one giant, stinking surprise. A win would have clinched the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye, but the Dolphins (the Dolphins!) waltzed into Foxborough and handed New England its most un-Patriots-y loss in recent memory. The Pats still have the postseason to try and stave off this creeping case of dynasty decay, but Sunday’s defeat means they’ll have to follow a far more arduous path.
The Patriots don’t do wild-card games. They haven’t played in one since 2009, and a win on Sunday would have extended their streak of avoiding the early-playoff riffraff for one more year. This seemed nearly guaranteed when New England took a 4-point lead with under four minutes to go, but Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that stunned the home crowd and gave Miami its first win in New England since 2008.
It was a masterpiece from Fitzpatrick, who’s played for 698 NFL teams over his 3,875-year career. There was a lot of talk this season about the Patriots defense being an all-time great unit, but the journeyman quarterback diced them up like an infomercial knife.
New England’s loss is Kansas City’s gain, and the Chiefs were able to claim the No. 2 seed for themselves by beating the Chargers on Sunday. CBS announcer Kevin Harlan was working the game at Arrowhead, but he managed to provide an ad hoc RedZone call of Fitzpatrick’s touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki. It’s an awesome bit of broadcasting, one that’s made even better by the delayed cheers from the Kansas City crowd as they realize what’s happening in Massachusetts.
The Patriots losing will always be the story, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the Miami Dolphins as they might be the most impressive 5–11 team in NFL history. They were outscored 163–26 over their first four games and looked destined to be the worst team the league has ever seen—and that was before the front office traded away their best player. Miami executives were hellbent on tanking, but first-year head coach Brian Flores somehow managed to wring mediocrity from the abyss. Coaches who get mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before Thanksgiving usually don’t win NFL Coach of the Year, but robbing the Patriots of a bye week is a fantastic consolation trophy for Flores (who was New England’s linebackers coach before he took the Miami job).
First-round byes are a wonderful thing. This should be obvious. Football is an extremely painful and taxing sport, and you should jump at the opportunity to avoid three hours of bodily harm whenever possible. Few teams have benefited from postseason byes more than New England, and the Patriots have never won a Super Bowl without one. Since 2001, the Patriots’ playoff record when they have a bye is 27–7; they’re 3–3 when they don’t have one. In the parlance of statistics, this is a “mondo difference” that suggests byes are a “big-ass deal.”
The Patriots certainly know this. That’s why they always work so hard during the regular season to ensure that they get a first-round bye. They’re at their best when in control of their own destiny, a scenario that has helped them control the fate of the entire league for two decades. But they lost their grip on Sunday, and they did so against a team they beat 43–0 in September. As a result, they will have to skip their annual weekend off and play in the AFC wild-card game against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans are a much tougher foe than the Dolphins (and far harder to beat than no team at all).
Here’s where I must include an obligatory disclaimer: The Patriots aren’t dead. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are going to live forever, with or without playoff byes. They’re going to harvest my organs (for fun), and then they’re going to harvest the organs of more capable humans in order to continue their eternal reign over the NFL. We can laugh at their loss to the Dolphins (the Dolphins!) and poke fun at Brady for throwing a pick-six (his first since 2017), but that will just make the inevitable Super Bowl run all the more grating. Enjoy this while you can.