Patriots frustrated by missed opportunity

"We had chances and just weren't able to make enough plays," coach Bill Belichick said after New England's loss. Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI -- The New England Patriots have lived most of the 2013 season on the edge, and it finally caught up to them in Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. The defeat also appeared to push quarterback Tom Brady over the edge.

Brady took two questions in his postgame news conference, answering the last one with an expletive before walking off.

"We had plenty of chances all day," he said. "We make some good plays and then we make plenty of [expletive] plays."

That was it. Brady's 55-second session captured the across-the-board frustration from a team that let two opportunities slip through its grasp: The chance to clinch the AFC East championship with a victory and also keep control of the chance to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

Coach Bill Belichick said last week that there was no time for such big-picture talk and what unfolded Sunday at steamy Sun Life Stadium was a reminder why. Things change fast in the NFL and now the 10-4 Patriots, who a few days ago were being discussed as a potential No. 1 seed after the Denver Broncos' home loss to San Diego Chargers, are anything but locks to even earn a first-round playoff bye.

Heck, they aren't even a lock to win the AFC East at this point. Up next is a tough road game against the Baltimore Ravens, followed by the regular-season finale at home against the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins (8-6) close with a trip to Buffalo and a finale at home against the New York Jets.

To understand how Patriots players felt about that, one needed only to watch Brady's remarks afterward. Even in games in which Brady leaves the field fuming, such as the Nov. 18 loss in Carolina when he lit into referee Clete Blakeman as he exited, he usually cools down by the time he answers questions from reporters.

This time was different, the frustration building as he listened to a question about the team's valiant final drive falling short, his jaw clenched tight and the emotions started to boil within.

After saying an expletive, Brady sounded like he was about to continue his thought, saying "so ..." But then he gathered himself, nodded his head a few times and said "thank you" as he reached down to pick up his bag and walked off.

It all happened fast, coming after Brady previously said, "It turns out we come up on the short end of the stick so it just wasn't a good day. We just couldn't make enough plays when we had a chance to."

True, but much like most of the games the Patriots have played this year, the result could have been different had a few plays gone in the other direction. Since it didn't, much of the focus will be on the deficiencies that were easy for everyone to see.

On offense, the Patriots badly missed tight end Rob Gronkowski in the red zone (it had one touchdown in four trips). On defense, there were no turnovers for the second game in a row and when a stop was needed on the Dolphins' game-winning drive, such as on fourth-and-5, the unit couldn't deliver. And even on special teams, usually reliable Stephen Gostkowski booted the kickoff out of bounds after the Patriots went ahead 20-17, giving Miami a shorter field for their final march.

"It was a disappointing game," coach Bill Belichick said. "It was close, very competitive. We had chances and just weren't able to make enough plays."

The Patriots' red-zone struggles weren't surprising when considering Brady is 21-of-34 when throwing to Gronkowski in the end zone over the past three seasons, and 26-of-97 to all other intended receivers, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.

Still, for a team that prides itself on "next man up" and finding creative solutions to account for significant personnel losses, there are no excuses.

Meanwhile, on a day the injury-ravaged defense had its moments, it wilted in the clutch by failing to close out the Dolphins on third-and-16 and then fourth-and-5 on the game-winning drive. A good defense finds a way to make those plays, and at this point, the depleted Patriots clearly aren't in that category.

This is a unit that has to win with scheme, and Sunday's plan -- tailored to take away the middle-of-the-field passing game, specifically versatile tight end Charles Clay -- looked solid for long stretches of the game. But what resulted was that they were eaten up on the outside and down the field, as Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tanehill was 12-of-18 for 217 yards and one touchdown on throws 10 or more yards downfield.

It made sense that the Patriots took such an approach, often using top cornerback Aqib Talib inside, because in the first 13 games of the season Tannehill had a 45.5 completion percentage with three touchdowns and 11 interceptions on throws 10 or more yards down the field. Yet as has been the case in recent weeks -- whether it's Houston's Case Keenum, Cleveland's Jason Campbell or Tannehill -- opposing quarterbacks aren't finding the Patriots' defense too difficult to carve up.

Add in the special teams miscue on Gostkowski's kickoff, and there were enough slip-ups in each phase to produce the final result.

So it's no wonder that Brady was still steaming by the time he met the media. The Patriots have been living on the edge for most of the season and it finally caught up to them, the opportunity to clinch the AFC East and control the AFC's No. 1 seed slipping away from them in the process.