Patriots, Tom Brady struggle without Gronk; on to Pittsburgh

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The New England Patriots have turned to the "next man up" and had continued success, which almost makes it a surprise when it doesn't happen.

That's what unfolded Monday night in a 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

Personnel losses finally caught up to the Patriots, as playing without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was serving a one-game NFL suspension, had the offense out of sync (0-for-11 on third down) and quarterback Tom Brady off his game. Couple that with inspired play from the Dolphins, who deserve plenty of credit, and it was a disappointing night for the Patriots, as their eight-game win streak was snapped and an opportunity to clinch the AFC East was missed.

The third-down stats were alarming, as it was the first time the Patriots hadn't converted a single third-down play since the 1991 season.

"Yeah, it was pretty bad. We can't get any worse than that," said Brady, who finished 24-of-43 for 233 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. "We couldn't stay on the field and just didn't make enough plays. It's just a bad night. We've had a lot of good nights this year, and this was a bad night."

With a highly anticipated AFC showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers next Sunday, the performance serves as a reminder that the depleted Patriots are beatable when they are outcoached and don't play their best. It also added to their history of struggles in South Florida, as Brady dropped to 7-9 lifetime in Miami.

As bad as it looked at times, the Patriots (10-3) can still put themselves in prime position for a top seed in the AFC playoffs with a win on the road against the Steelers (11-2), which would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh.

To do so, they'll need to quickly move past what unfolded against the Dolphins, as the struggles with "next man up" extended to the defense as well. Going without leading sacker Trey Flowers and top playing-time linebacker Kyle Van Noy -- then losing defensive tackle Alan Branch to a knee injury in the second quarter -- had the front seven undermanned and unable to provide consistent resistance against quarterback Jay Cutler.

More than anything, though, the Patriots will need a better Brady.

Without go-to guy Gronkowski as an option in the middle of the field and on third down, Brady never truly looked comfortable and at times was just unloading the ball deep. The Dolphins' defense, which was carved up by Brady in a 35-17 loss on Nov. 26, was a step ahead.

"They were playing a lot of cover-1 with a robber in the middle of the field," wide receiver Danny Amendola said. "That takes the middle of the field away and gives them a free guy in the middle of the field, and you have to find a way to beat it."

In the first half, 10 of Brady's 11 completions were to running backs, with the other to tight end Dwayne Allen. Other than a pass interference penalty drawn by receiver Brandin Cooks that set up the team's first touchdown, there was little impact from the team's receiving corps, as the Dolphins led 13-10 at halftime and ultimately pulled away.

"We got behind, and that's not the way we want to play the game. It's a bad loss," Brady said. "I wish we played better, but we didn't. We have to move on and try to play better next week."

The Patriots entered the game with a 20-5 record in games without Gronkowski, though in the past having receiver Julian Edelman helped soften that blow. Since 2010, when neither Gronkowski nor Edelman has been on the field, Brady has a total QBR of 50, compared to 77 with at least one of them on the field.

Fortunately for the Patriots, Gronkowski will be back next Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Without him, Brady and the offense didn't look the same.