For the New England Patriots, their game against the Miami Dolphins was at risk of being more about who was not taking the field for the team than who was actually healthy enough to play in the contest. With tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins not available for the team, the Patriots were missing 106 receptions, 1,550 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns' worth of production from their offense. Certainly their absence hurt the team, and kindly enough, the production of the Patriots offense on Sunday provided enough evidence to drive the narrative that had the Patriots had those players healthy, especially consummate red zone threat Rob Gronkowski, perhaps the team would have defeated the Dolphins instead of falling to their opponent by the score of 24-20.
Although the Patriots only mustered 20 points off of their 10 possessions, they were certainly not anemic on offense throughout the contest. In fact, they had five sustained drives in the contest, sustained being defined by the offense gaining at least 50 yards on each drive. The problem for the Patriots came when they attempted to finish those drives off with touchdowns and failed to do so, leading to the offense leaving a lot of points on the field in Sunday's contest.
Of their four red-zone trips against the Dolphins, the Patriots only punched the ball into the end zone once, settling for field goals on two of the other trips and having a Tom Brady interception end the game on their last drive that stalled out in the red zone. Perhaps with Gronkowski on the field, a benefit the Patriots will not be able to count on until 2014, Brady would have done better than completing three of his 11 pass attempts for a paltry 19 yards and one interception during the Patriots' red zone possessions.
With such a poor performance during their red zone possessions, it is no wonder Patriots head coach Bill Belichick elected to kick field goals from the Dolphins' 4-yard line and 5-yard line in the contest; there was very little reason for him to have faith that his offense would do on fourth down what they had not managed to do on their other red zone downs.
Conversely, the Dolphins had little difficulty in capitalizing on their red zone possessions; of their three trips to the red zone, the Dolphins scored touchdowns on two of them, with their final red zone possession culminating in what proved to be the game-winning touchdown in the contest.
Both the Patriots and the Dolphins scored on four of their offensive possessions, and the winning margin was determined by the fact that the Dolphins scored one more touchdown than the Patriots did on their scoring drives. In a close game where the offenses performed in pretty much identical ways, 5.8 yards per play for the Patriots and 5.9 yards per play for the Dolphins, red zone performance proved to the be the difference maker with the Dolphins showing a superior level of efficiency the closer they got to the end zone.
Not only did the Patriots waste opportunities within the contest, they also wasted their opportunity to seize control of their playoff destiny. After the Denver Broncos lost to the San Diego Chargers on Thursday, the Patriots were in the driver's seat for the number one playoff seed in the AFC. All the Patriots had to do was win out for the rest of the season, and they would guarantee themselves homefield advantage throughout the non-Super Bowl portion of the postseason.
Instead, the Patriots were unable to do so, falling to the Dolphins and falling back into the number two seed in the projected AFC playoff bracket, because they were unable to accomplish what has become all too necessary for them to win a game: stage a late-game comeback. While the adrenaline rush of always needing to race down the field and score points in the final minutes, or even seconds, of a game must be heady indeed, the Patriots would definitely be better off not letting their future games get to that stage.
Then again, eventually one has to eventually reach the conclusion the Patriots are simply incapable of dominating any of their opponents on a consistent basis and the best the Patriots organization can hope for is that they succeed at their late-game comebacks in the playoffs more often than they fail since the postseason will only afford them one opportunity to fail before the Patriots find themselves at home until 2014.