Sunday, December 15, 2013

Patriots' magic runs out, fall short in Miami 24-20

All season long the New England Patriots defense had been victimized by athletic tight ends who shredded the linebackers and safeties for big yardage, first downs and touchdowns.

On Sunday afternoon in South Florida, the Miami Dolphins tight ends did no such thing.

Big play tight end Charles Clay was hounded by the Patriots' coverage all game, and backup tight end Michael Egnew was blanketed almost as closely - but when the pair absolutely, positively had to make a play, they did, and although the plays that they were able to make didn't result in points, they extended drives at critical times...
Michael Hoomanawanui pulls in a fist half touchdown pass

...and the rest was left up to quarterback Ryan Tannehill putting perfect throws on his pass catchers coupled with creative play calling by the Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman - who made the tough decisions when his counterpart on the Patriots wouldn't - and their defense getting big plays out of an unheralded second year safety on the Patriots' final drive to survive New England 24-20.

Survived, because without Safety Michael Thomas stripping the football away from Patriots' receiver Danny Amendola in the end zone with 27 seconds left to play, and then undercutting receiver Austin Collie and intercepting quarterback Tom Brady with seven seconds left, the good work put forth by Tannehill, Sherman, Clay and Egnew would have all gone for naught.

But despite all of the second half heroics from the Dolphins, this game was turned in their favor in the final forty seconds of the first half.

The Patriots had taken a 10-0 lead on a highlight reel one-handed touchdown grab by tight end Michael Hoomanwanui with 1:46 left in the second quarter, the ensuing kickoff giving Tannehill the ball at his own 18 yard line, going primarily to receiver Rishard Matthews to get the Dolphins to the New England 39 in less than a minute - when Patriots' slot corner Kyle Arrington was hobbled by a muscle cramp and had to come out of the game...

...Tannehill going directly at his replacement, journeyman Marquice Cole, who actually had decent coverage on the play, but Tannehill threaded the needle to speedster Mike Wallace, who shook Cole's tackle, juked safety Steve Gregory and went 39 yards to cut New England's lead to 10-7.

New England got the ball back at their own 20 with 32 seconds left in the half and two timeouts remaining, but Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed curiously satisfied to run out the clock and take a tenuous three point lead into the locker room - and to let the Dolphins take all of the momentum into theirs.

After a third quarter that saw Patriots' Mr. Automatic Stephen Gostkowski hook a 48 yard field goal attempt just left, and Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis tie the game at ten by nailing a 32 yarder, the Dolphins took the lead on a Tannehill pass to running back Daniel Thomas on the first play of the fourth, aided by a pass interference call on linebacker Dane Fletcher, who stumbled and took down Egnew on a third and four from the New England seven yard line.

Brady and the Patriots responded, but had to settle for a Gostkowski field goal after a 3rd and goal blitz by the Dolphins forced an incompletion at the two yard line - but the Patriots' defense got the ball right back for Brady, who hit Julian Edelman on an in cut and the tough-as-nails receiver managed to weave his way through traffic for a 24 yard touchdown and a 20-17 New England lead with just over four minutes remaining in the contest.

Gostkowski gave the Dolphins excellent field position on the ensuing kickoff by kicking the football out of bounds, automatically placing the ball at the Miami 40 - but an incomplete pass and a sack of Tannehill by Sealver Siliga had the Dolphins on a third and long, an 11 yard pass to Brian Hartline setting up a 4th and 5 from the Miami 45...

Tannehill, knowing that if he didn't pick up the first down he probably wouldn't see the ball again, took the snap, pivoted to his right and fired a screen to Clay, who had been held without a catch to that point - and Clay manged to weave his way through Patriots' defenders for six yards to keep the drive alive.

Five plays later, Tannehill found running back Marcus Thigpen in the left flat trailed by linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and Thigpen outraced Hightower to the end zone from 14 yards out and the Dolphins had a four point lead with just 1:15 left in the game.

Brady marched the Patriots right down the field, throwing a 12 yard strike to Edelman to get the Patriots to the Dolphins' 19 yard line, and an offsides call on Miami's Cameron Wake got the ball to the 14 - but with 27 seconds left, Danny Amendola couldn't hang onto a perfect pass from Brady just inside the goal line, Thomas knocking the ball loose as Amendola attempted to bring it back into his body...

...a second down pass in the direction of Edelman fell short in the left flat and a strike to Hoomanwanui fell incomplete with no pass interference call despite contact, the fourth down pass toward Collie intercepted by Thomas to preserve the Dolphins' win.

Following the game a clearly distraught Amendola lamented not being able to come down with the winning score, but Thomas, who wasn't even a Dolphin until 5 days earlier after being signed off of the San Francisco 49ers practice squad, made a terrific play on the ball that allowed Miami to continue their playoff push and closed the door on the Patriots' hopes for the top seed in the conference, and maybe even a first round bye.

Damaging loss for the Patriots, who played a solid game, but this time couldn't come up with the clutch plays when they needed them most, while Tannehill, Thomas and the Dolphins made enough to pull out the win - barely.

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