Miami Gardens, Fla. -- The stories were written. Every writer was just waiting to hit the send button. The Pats had clinched another AFC East title. The game was ugly from the Pats standpoint. Stephen Gostkowski missed two kicks, the run defense looked porous in the first half giving up 142 yards on the ground and the Pats offense had scored only six points in the second half after not scoring at the end of the first half when Tom Brady took a sack. That said, the Pats have mastered the art of winning ugly in recent years. It looked that way again.
The Dolphins had the ball at their own 31 with seven seconds left and no timeouts. That's when Ryan Tannehill found Kenny Stills who the Pats could not stop all day for a 14-yard completion. Stills lateraled to Devante Parker who lateraled it to Kenyan Drake who ran 52 yards for the touchdown. The Dolphins had won a 34-33 stunner. Many Dolphins fans had left. Pats fans will question why Rob Gronkowski was on the field - given that the play was not going to be a Hail Mary. Tannehill could not throw the ball 69 yards in the air.
There will be second guessing, but this loss will not define the Pats season. The Pats remain the No. 2 seed. The question is how the Pats respond next week in Pittsburgh. There was a determination in the Pats locker room not to let the loss destroy the season.
"You can't worry about what if's you gotta worry about what is in front of you," Trey Flowers said.
Gronkowski thought the Pats have the high character players necessary to respond to such a loss.
"That's why its football and a game of inches. That gave me a lesson there to show it was true," Gronkowski said. "This loss is going to test our character and mental toughness. I feel like I have been going through that all year and just to get to this point - you gotta keep working hard and keep grinding. We are going to have to come together as a team and it is definitely going to be a test of our mental toughness."
Gronkowski had a hard time remembering that this was likely his best game this season with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.
"That just shows what happens when you lose. You can have a great game or whatever, but if you don't get the W it really doesn't matter," Gronkowski said. "You always gotta find ways to do more and just play 60 minutes of football. We worked all week to have a different outcome and we just have to keep grinding."
Devin McCourty said exhaustion was not a factor on the play. He didn't expect a Hail Mary given that Tannehill would have had to throw the ball 71 yards. McCourty noted that this not the first tough loss he has experienced. He was on the team that lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl in 2012 and last year's team that lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. McCourty, who was the sidelines for the final play, thinks his team will respond next week in Pittsburgh.
"All these losses stink," McCourty said. "I think we have the type of guys who have character and will be ready to go next week."
What will frustrate the Patriots is Bill Belichick has his team practice end of game situations - usually on Friday. The practice failed to pay dividends this week. Harmon said the key on the last play was to have proper spacing so the Pats could respond to any laterals of the offense. Easier said than done.
"We were one play away from the win and let we let it slip it away," Duron Harmon said. "We will have to watch the tape and get better. This is not something we are going to let define us. We have a big challenge next week in Heinz Field. We cannot let it linger."
Harmon said he didn't think exhaustion from the heat in Miami was a factor. However, if exhaustion was a factor the defense is to blame because of the porous run defense in the first half.
"When you don't stop the run, you are out there longer than you should be," Harmon said. "Once we took their big running plays away, we were able to slow the game down and play better team defense."
For those who liked offensive football, this was the game to watch in the first half with 48 combined points. The Pats offense looked as good at it did all year with 259 yards and four touchdowns. It also helped that Albert McClellan blocked two punts. The first block led to a Pats touchdown and the second the Pats were unable to take advantage of at the end of the first half. Tom Brady took a sack on the half's final play and time expired. It was fourth down so the Pats couldn't spike the ball and there was not enough time to get the field goal unit on the field. The Dolphins could not stop Julian Edelman who had seven catches for 70 yards in the first half.
The Pats, though, struggled against the Dolphins offense in the first half. All week, it was clear the Pats had to stop the Dolphins big plays. The Dolphins first drive took only five plays and resulted in a touchdown. Frank "the timeless" Gore had a 36-yard run and Devante Parker had a 15-yard reception. Kenny Stills, who finished with eight catches for 135 yards, caught the touchdown pass. Whether it was Jason McCourty or J.C. Jackson - man or zone - the Pats could not stop Stills.
On the Dolphins second touchdown drive, it took only two plays to score. Kenny Stills caught a 21-yard pass and Brandon Bolden, who the Pats cut at the end of training camp, ran for a 54-yard touchdown. On the Dolphins third touchdown drive, it took only six plays to score. Stills had two catches on the drive, his longest of the day for 43 yards and another for 10 yards. Bolden ran for a six yard touchdown to make it 21-20. The Pats responded when Brady threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Gronkowski. The Pats led 27-21 at halftime.
The Pats scored only six points in the second half and the Dolphins had only one touchdown before the miraculous last play when Tannehill hit Brice Butler for a 23-yard catch in the third quarter. It was impressive that the unheard of Butler beat Stephon Gilmore who according to some is the best corner in football.
The Dolphins made a questionable decision not to go for it on fourth and four in the fourth quarter - down only two points. The Pats offense responded with a beautiful game closing drive. The Pats completed two first downs to their most reliable receivers -- Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon. Gordon appeared to clinch the game when a questionable play pass interference penalty was called on Minkah Fitzpatrick who was trying to catch up to Gordon on a deep pass from Brady. The Pats, though, had to settle for a field goal to make it 33-28 with 16 seconds left.
The rest is part of Pats-Dolphins lore now with the lateral from Parker to Drake that sent New England into a depression. The Pats have now lost five of their last six in Miami. Maybe it is the ghost of Don Shula who always has had a contentious relationship with Bill Belichick or maybe it is just bad luck. It is tough to explain why the Pats struggle in South Florida no matter the time of the year. Brady is now 7-10 here and Belichick is 8-11. Pats captain Matthew Slater does not think it is a mental thing in Miami.
"I don't think so," Slater said. "It's new guys every year -- new team, new situation. I certainly hope we are not psyching ourselves out. I don't think we are."
One thing is for sure the Pats will have to answer questions about their struggles in Miami when the two teams play next year.