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It was all there, right in front of the New England Patriots: The Broncos’ loss in San Diego gave them the opportunity to stake their claim to the coveted number one seed in the AFC. Thomas Brady and William Belichick took their familiar seats in the cockpit; pilot and co-pilot ready to take flight for New Jersey. “Attention passengers: Flight G87 out of Foxboro has been cancelled due to an unforeseen weather pattern coming up from the south. We here at Patriot airways apologize for the inconvenience.” The flight that seemed so easy was suddenly cancelled, and the Patriots now must once again plan for a layover in Denver before they can book their flight to New Jersey.
The Patriots entered Sunday’s game against Miami having won the teams’ last six meetings. Despite last week’s loss of Rob Gronkowski, there seemed to be little doubt that the Pats could stroll into sunny Miami and get win number seven. What is it they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men? As much as New England needed this win to keep a hold on home field advantage for the playoffs, the Dolphins needed the win far more: They needed it to keep their playoff hopes alive. Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace picked apart the Pats D and while Tommy, Danny and Julian all had their way with the equally unimpressive Miami D, it was not enough for the Pats to stage yet another fourth-quarter comeback.
The Pats jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, thanks in part to Gronkowski’s ostensible shoe-filler, Michael Hoomanawanui. Wallace, Marcus Thigpen and Daniel Thomas responded with impressive touchdown receptions for the Fins, and despite an Edelman TD, New England was once again forced to attempt a last second drive for a win. Unfortunately, Michael Thomas, freshly signed from the 49ers practice squad, was having none of that as he knocked a touchdown reception out of Amendola’s hands and then drove the final nail into the Patriots’ coffin with a last-second pick.
This loss falls somewhere between a disaster and a mild inconvenience for the Patriots. Given the losses by Denver and Cincinnati, the Patriots actually find themselves in the exact same place they were last week at this time: A game out of first place and a game ahead of third. This sounds fine, the Pats did beat Denver once after all, no reason to think they cannot do it again should the two meet in the Mile High City come January.
Dig a little deeper, and there is cause for concern here. The Pats must travel to Baltimore next week; a team that will be more driven to win given Miami’s victory yesterday, followed by Buffalo at home. The precariousness of this situation is driven by the fact that Cincy holds the almighty tiebreaker over New England due to the Bengals’ week five win. If the Patriots want to maintain their position, they face a tougher road than Cincy, who get Minnesota next week and then Baltimore at home. After the chaos and hand-wringing begotten by the Miami loss, New England finds themselves in control of their own destiny: Win out to clinch at least the second seed and pray Denver somehow loses to either Houston or Oakland.
Unfortunately, however, the Bengals and the Ravens smell blood, and the Pats need to stop the bleeding before the playoffs begin.