MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The New England Patriots closed out the regular season with a 20-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. At 12-4, they now move on to the playoffs, where they will have a first-round bye and host a divisional-round game.
Reasons to be excited: Injured players are coming back. Receiver Julian Edelman, a vital cog to the offense, has been out since Nov. 15 with a broken bone in his left foot, and he is on track to be available. Ditto for offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (left ankle), linebacker Dont'a Hightower (left knee) and defensive end Chandler Jones (toe/abdomen), among others. The Patriots' offense, in particular, hasn't been the same without Edelman. The fact that the Patriots will be playing at home in the divisional round is also something to put in the "plus" column.
Reasons to be concerned: The Patriots are not playing good football entering the playoffs, and quarterback Tom Brady took a big hit in the finale from Ndamukong Suh that had him hobbling off and then getting his right ankle retaped. After the game, Brady said "I'm pretty sore" but felt he would be "all right." Brady was limping noticeably in the locker room after the game, as the offensive line did not hold up its end of the bargain Sunday. Meanwhile, Sunday's loss cost the Patriots the chance to be the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which is now in the Broncos' control if they beat the Chargers. Having home-field advantage could have eased some of the concern.
How far they can go: Before the season finale, the Super Bowl would have been the decisive answer. Now we're not so sure. Is it realistic to think that the Patriots can get their injured players back and flip a switch to become the team that was so impressive earlier in the season? The Patriots have traditionally been a team that plays its best football after Thanksgiving, but that hasn't been the case this season, and one line of thinking has been that once all injured players return, things will change. As Brady said after the game, "We just have to play well two weeks from now. That's all that really matters. It's going to be one game, you have to play well, and that's what our whole season is going to come down to. Nothing over the last six weeks is going to matter. Nothing over the last 16 weeks is going to matter."