MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- It was 28 days ago against these Miami Dolphins that the Patriots began a five-game stretch that most believed would define their season, a five-contest crucible that would tell us who these Patriots are and where they're heading.
That stretch ended yesterday with a heartbreaking fall-from-ahead, 22-21, loss to the Dolphins at Land Shark Stadium, a game that might ultimately end up serving as a season-defining defeat. Super Bowl XLIV will be played in this same South Florida stadium about two months from now (Feb. 7), and the way the Patriots are playing right now it's hard to believe they'll be there unless they buy a ticket.
While we might not know for certain who these Patriots are yet, we definitely know who they are not, the same Patriots teams that dominated this decade. Where they're headed is nowhere, at least by the Super Bowl-or-bust standards that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have fostered for this franchise. Where they end up is now up to them.
You didn't have to hear the disappointment in the voices of player after player after yet another road loss to know that the Patriots have gone from a swaggering team to a staggering one. That's what happens when you cough up an 11-point, second-half lead against a division rival while your franchise quarterback throws a pair of crippling fourth-quarter interceptions, including one on your final possession of the game that left him on his knees, banging his helmet into the sod in frustration.
Yesterday's loss left the Patriots at a loss. It was their second straight defeat, their third in four games and their fifth on the road, where they haven't won on American soil. The Patriots better get used to playing on the road because the notion of a first-round bye is fading fast. Even if they win their final four games, the best the Patriots can finish is 11-5. That's the same record they had last year, when Brady was watching from home and Matt Cassel was the quarterback.
Oh, and as for the five-game test, the Patriots ended up with a losing record (2-3) and without a win over team with a winning record. If anyone had told you before the five games began that is how the Patriots would do you would have said that was a disappointment.
Under sodium penathol the Patriots would admit the same.
"Well, I don't know, I think each game is defining," said outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, part of a Patriots' defense that allowed Chad Henne to channel Dan Marino. "I don't think any stretch of games really says anything. I think we take it one game at a time. We got Carolina this week. We got to take each game with a one-game approach.
"Hopefully, we can win that and that will spark us to get back on the winning track because right now we're not. So, we'll see how we bounce back next week."
This loss was as disheartening as any one that the Patriots have had this season, including the collapse against the Colts and the beatdown in the Bayou against the Saints.
Coming in the Dolphins, who at 6-6 are now just a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East and have a 4-2 division record, which the Patriots can only match, had the 30th-rated passing attack in the league at 161.2 yards per game. They were coming off a 31-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills in which Henne tossed three interceptions.
Accordingly, the Patriots' game plan was to take away Miami's rushing attack, which was third in the league at (156.1 yards per game), and make Henne beat them.
There was no Wildcat wizardry or option trickery. The Dolphins simply lined up and fired away at the Patriots' pass defense with impunity, much like the Saints had in the Superdome.
Belichick always talks about the relationship between pass rush and pass coverage. Well, when you have neither you have a mutually-destructive union. Henne had enough time to watch "CSI: Miami" in the pocket most of the day and he was definitely able to solve the Patriots' secondary.
Henne set career-highs for completions (29), attempts (52) and yardage (335) and New England made the trio of Davone Bess, Greg Camarillo and Brian Hartline, an undrafted receiver, a receiver picked up off waivers and a rookie fourth-rounder, look as difficult to cover as Russian foreign relations.
The trio combined for 16 catches for 219 yards and both of Miami's touchdowns.
Bess had career-highs with 10 catches for 117 receiving yards and scored Miami's first touchdown early in the second quarter. Camarillo came up with the play of the game, a clutch 13-yard reception on fourth and 6 from the Patriots' 41 that extended the drive that culminated in Dan Carpenter's 41-yard field goal with 1:02 left that gave Miami its first and only lead of the game. Hartline caught a 7-yard TD pass on third and goal in the third quarter.
The last two weeks the Patriots have allowed 706 yards passing and seven touchdowns with just one interception. Explain to me again how Shawn Springs isn't good enough to dress for this defense.
But this one wasn't all on the defense. After Sam Aiken did his best Randy Moss impression on New England's first drive of the second half, scoring -- appropriately -- on an 81-yard touchdown reception, to give New England a 21-10 lead, the Patriots offense went M.I.A. in MIA.
At that point Brady and his damaged digit (TV showed Brady had a black and blue *ring finger on his right hand) was 14 for 15 for 277 yards with two TD's and no interceptions. He went 5 of 14 for 75 yards with a pair of picks the rest of the way to finish 19 of 29 for 352 yards with two TDs and two interceptions, including a game-changing INT in the end zone on second and goal from the Miami 5 with 9:39 left.
*(Update on 12/8: Got to watch the game on the DVR and realized it was the ring finger and not the middle one as I first wrote right after the game).
Brady and the Patriots' offense went punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, interception after Aiken's score.
So, after the failed five it now comes down to the final four games for the Patriots.
"We're in a one-game playoff now every week," said Jerod Mayo. "It's like having a lead in the fourth quarter, a 7-point lead in the fourth quarter, so we just got to come up with plays and take it one game at a time."
Hopefully, Mayo is wrong and the rest of the Patriots' season is not like holding a fourth-quarter lead because based on what we've seen if that's the case then their season will be defined by disappointment.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.