Maybe it was the muffed snap on the game’s first punt.
Or perhaps it was Jimmy Wilson’s face-plant into Zoltan Mesko’s lower midsection.
Or how about when Ryan Tannehill missed a wide-open Brian Hartline not once, but twice deep?
Pick any of those moments. Pick them all.
They all told the same tale in the Dolphins’ 23-16 loss to New England Sunday: Anything less than Miami’s best isn’t good enough against the league’s elite. And, most likely, not good enough to make the playoffs, either.
Special teams miscues and shaky play from Ryan Tannehill make for a terrible formula against any team. And doubly so against the Patriots, who clinched their fourth consecutive AFC East crown in front of thousands of their own fans at Sun Life Stadium.
The Dolphins also dropped their fifth in a row to the Patriots.
New England survived a rare off-day by Tom Brady and the normally high-flying Patriots offense (at least by their standards) because, in the end, the Patriots made winning plays.
The Dolphins, however, did not, having a touchdown taken off the board by penalty and at least three others by poor execution.
“It doesn’t get any more frustrating than that,” said linebacker Karlos Dansby, who had hyped Sunday’s affair by calling it a playoff game in the days that preceded it.
Added Dolphins coach Joe Philbin: “We’ve got to play better. To beat a good opponent in December, you have to play better. We can’t make excuses. We made too many mistakes.”
Exhibit A: Ryan Tannehill.
He muddled through a 13-of-29 afternoon, throwing for 186 yards and losing a fumble. But even those pedestrian numbers were inflated by a hurry-up field-goal drive when the game was essentially over.
As for when the outcome was still in doubt, he personified the gulf between young, green quarterbacks and future Hall of Famers.
With the Dolphins down 10 in the early stages of the fourth quarter, Tannehill misfired on a would-be touchdown pass to Hartline, and then took a drive-killing sack on third down. As has been the case all too often this fall, the Dolphins had to swallow three points instead of seven, and field goals against the Patriots are a losing proposition.
It was the third time Tannehill had Hartline free for a touchdown. He overthrew the first chance and underthrew the second.
“If you’re wide open and you’ve got a guy like that, you’ve got to make those plays,” Philbin said.
Tannehill, who has just two touchdown passes and seven turnovers in the Dolphins’ past 18 quarters, agreed.
“You have to hit those; you don’t get too many shots like that,” he said.
Certainly not when your cornerstone left tackle is on the bench, with his arm wrapped in ice. Jake Long left the game with a triceps injury and did not return. If the injury proves serious, the final four games of his season — and his expiring rookie contract with the Dolphins — could be lost. He didn’t speak with reporters afterward, and Philbin provided no clues to the severity of the injury.
Brady, meanwhile, is better than he showed Sunday, but was still good enough to win. He completed 24 of 40 for 238, throwing a touchdown and an interception. Wes Welker continued his mastery of the Dolphins, catching 12 passes for 103 yards.
Tannehill can take solace in this: He wasn’t the only reason the Dolphins lost. Far from it. Gaffes in the kicking game directly contributed to 14 Patriots points.
First, Brandon Fields botched a low snap on the game’s opening possession, and couldn’t get off a punt before the Patriots tackled him inside the Dolphins’ 15.
Then, Wilson went after Mesko’s punt following a New England three-and-out, and plowed into the specialist, drawing a 15-yard penalty and extending the drive.
Both mistakes led directly to touchdowns for the Patriots.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins kept blowing opportunities to get into the end zone. When Reshad Jones picked off Brady late in the first quarter, he took it to the house. Or at least he thought. A low block penalty took the points off the board.
“It hurts man, because it could have helped us with the victory,” Jones said.
Finally, with less than a minute left in the first half, the Dolphins were able to cross the goal line. Tannehill kept the ball on a quarterback option, then hurdled a Patriots defender, going head over heels.
The Dolphins’ playoff chances did a similar summersault Sunday. The loss was their seventh of the season, usually a disqualifying number. At 5-7, they’re two games out of the final wild-card spot with four to play.
“We’ll see,” center Mike Pouncey said, when asked of the Dolphins’ postseason chances. “We’ll look at it and see where we go from here. But I’ll tell you one thing: Whether we’re in the playoff hunt or not, this team is going to keep playing hard every week and we’re not going to give up.”