Trailing by four points with a minute left to go and the ball in Tom Brady's hands, I assumed the Patriots had it in the bag. This was the Dolphins, a team they haven't lost to since 2009 and a franchise prone to disappointment. Nope. Brady, Belichick and Co. ran out of luck and whatever magic was left in the silk hat stolen from the friendly snowman some kids built outside team headquarters.
It's easy to take the Patriots and the winning seasons for granted. Unless you're a fan or a hater, double-digit wins are kind of a thing that happens. But this has been an interesting year for the Patriots, starting over the summer when it looked like everything was going to hell at Foxborough.
Sunday's loss prevented the Patriots from taking over the top spot seed in the AFC playoff race, leaving them one game behind the Broncos. Still, it's remarkable that New England was in that position considering how things have gone this season.
Most of the receivers and tight ends changed from 2012 to this season, but you've heard that part of the story already. Rob Gronkowski came back for seven games before his season ended last week with a torn ACL. Injuries put Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the backbone of the defense, on injured reserve before the halfway point of the season. Cornerback Aqib Talib has missed four games with a hip injury.
There's the adversity script. Now the part about randomness.
New England's last five games have all been decided by three- and four-point margins. The Patriots own a 3-2 record in those five games after Sunday's 20-24 loss in Miami. For the season, 11 of the Patriots' 14 games have been decided by seven points or less; they're 7-4 in close games.
Last season the Patriots were 4-4 in games decided by seven points or less, finishing the year with a 12-4 record overall.
Officiating played an outsized role with pass interference calls, or a lack thereof, in three of those close games. That's not enough to prove the randomness of the universe, but it underscores the human element that can decide close football games.
The Patriots' expected win-loss total (based on point differential) this season was 8-5 before this week's game, according to Pro Football Focus. Even in this season's version of the AFC, that would be just good enough to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Brady has been more consistent in close games throughout his career, but that doesn't factor out all of the inconsistency teams have in close contests. And the 36-year-old has a good case for his third MVP award when you factor in the nice narrative all the changes to the roster makes. (He'll probably get beat out by Peyton Manning ... again).
Losing this week further intertwines the Patriots' playoff hopes with lady luck. A win would have put their record at 11-3, same as the Broncos, but New England had the edge in the race for home-field advantage because of a Week 12 win over Denver.
The Patriots are in Baltimore next week, before finishing the season at home against the Bills. The Broncos finish the season on the road against the Texans and Raiders. New England's luck might not have completely run out, but counting on the Texans and Raiders to beat the Broncos demands a miracle.
Mike Shanahan started the day with a quote about Kirk Cousins fetching a first-round pick in return. One more twist of the knife in his flame war/custody battle with team own Dan Snyder.
The guy is going to wind up on the breadline whenever the season mercifully ends. He knows that. And it's hard not to see the back-and-forth whisper campaign in the press and think that this is all coming down to the money Dan Snyder owes him for the remainder of his contract.
Shanahan may be a heel, but he's no rube.
The Falcons are giving up an average of 254.9 receiving yards per game, among the 10 worst teams in that category. Opposing quarterbacks have now thrown 28 touchdowns against the Falcons, only two teams have allowed more.
Cousins delivered, going 29-for-45 with 381 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. That's a season high for passing yards by either Washington quarterback. He threw 248 yards and two touchdowns in the first half to dig Washington out of a two-touchdown deficit. And his 8.5 yards per attempt speaks to the vertical throws he was dealing from the pocket.
Nothing Cousins did was enough to prevent Washington from chewing off its own leg to escape the steel trap of victory. Seven turnovers said way more about the state of the Redskins than a week of Mike Shanahan's scorched earth PR campaign.
Washington gets Dallas next week. All the league's worst secondary did on Sunday was make Matt Flynn look good (not an easy task). It's another good opportunity to up Cousins' trade value. A first-round pick still seems like a stretch. But it doesn't really matter for Shanahan, unless he's the one trading another team's first-round pick for Cousins in 2014.
Playoff bullet points
- If you wanted Jeff Ireland out in Miami, sordid revelations from the Incognito-Martin saga may be your only hope. Sunday's win most likely means the Dolphins are going to the playoffs. Even if the Ravens retake the sixth seed with a win Monday in Detroit, the Dolphins finish the season with the Bills and Jets. Baltimore still has to play New England and Cincinnati.
- But wait. Based on the current playoff order, the Dolphins would play the Bengals in Cincinnati in the wild card round, a team they beat in overtime in Week 9.
- Seattle didn't clinch the top spot in the NFC with Sunday's win over the Giants, not officially. But the Saints lost on the road to Rams. That keeps them two games behind the Seahawks and feeds questions about how well Drew Brees' team can play away from the Superdome. (It also happened to be 32 degrees in St. Louis on Sunday, but they were indoors).
- The Saints travel to Carolina next week, narrative in tow. If the Panthers win that game, Riverboat Ron will be in the captain's chair for claim to the second seed in the NFC.
- The NFC East posted a sterling 0-4 effort on Sunday. Reminder: NFL rules dictate that one team must win that division. Philadelphia had a shot to grab a two-game lead over the Cowboys, but they lost to the Vikings without Adrian Peterson. The Cowboys are in Washington next week; the Eagles host the Bears. A Dallas loss and a Philadelphia win would prevent a Week 17 winner-take-all showdown in Dallas.