You were looking for symbolism, and this seemed like the perfect day. You were looking for a sign that the Dolphins’ changing of the quarterback and changing of the head coach signaled a changing of the guard (at last) in the AFC East.
You didn’t find it. Couldn’t see it. It wasn’t there.
What you saw instead here Sunday was the continuation of the division reign of the New England Patriots — the team the Dolphins want to be when they grow up.
This was Miami’s first game vs. the nemesis Patriots in the new era of rookie QB Ryan Tannehill and coach Joe Philbin, but there was no immediate indication that their Patriots counterparts Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are prepared to yield anything.
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Sunday’s 23-16 home loss marked New England’s fifth consecutive victory in this series and seventh in the past eight games. It meant the Pats clinched yet another division title on cruise control, and left Miami’s playoff hopes on life-support with a 5-7 record.
If this was the Dolphins’ statement game, the only statement was, “Still not good enough.” If this was a measuring stick, it remained in the other guy’s control. And if you as a fan are pleased the score was at least close, well, raise your standards.
The Pats are still firmly the roadblock Miami must somehow figure a way to get past, and the fact Sunday’s was a winnable game not won in some ways make this loss even tougher to take.
See, New England was far from at its best. Its NFL-leading offense sputtered more than it purred. Even Brady — by his standards — was off his game, fallible, ordinary. He was laboring. Heck, he even threw an interception, which for Brady is roughly a once-a-month aberration.
And still the Patriots were the better team.
Miami wants to be that. The team that can win even when it doesn’t play particularly well. The team that can win even when its quarterback is far from heroic.
Instead Miami is still the team that must be nearly perfect when playing a quality opponent. Especially this one.
“You can’t make any mistakes against this team,” as center Mike Pouncey put it.
The Dolphins made mistakes. The first, a muffed punt, gave the Patriots a 12-yard touchdown drive. Giving Brady a gift TD is like giving Usain Bolt a head start.
Mistakes, yes. Tannehill lost a fumble, and misfired twice deep to an open Brian Hartline as Miami managed to convert a meager three of 13 third downs. “I’m still thinking to myself, ‘Gotta make those throws,’ ’’ Tannehill said afterward.
Said a concurring Philbin, “We have to make those plays.”
Mistakes, mistakes. Eight penalties included costly flags for roughing-the-punter and pass interference. Another negated an interception-return TD by Reshad Jones.
“It’s frustrating,” said Jones, “knowing we went up against a great offense and were in the game the whole way and don’t win.”
Jones’ defense hardly was blameless. It could not stop Brady’s late, clinching scoring drive when a stop was essential (with Cam Wake inexplicably on the sideline instead of in the game).
Clearly, though, this loss was on the offense. And losing left tackle Jake Long to a torn triceps early in the game (he did not return) didn’t help.
“We’re not dumb,” Tannehill said, “We know [the Pats] have a high-powered offense and that we have to score more points than we did.”
Hartline accepted blame for his unit more directly.
“We fell short on our end offensively,” he said.
The bottom line of Sunday’s results is that the bottom line has not changed, at least not yet:
The Patriots are still in charge in the AFC East.
And the Dolphins are still chasing.
A rare near-sellout crowd of 72,114 was full-throated in trying to will a Dolphins victory — well, except the thousands cheering for New England — but not even the uncommon intensity and volume of the crowd could lift the home team.
The Pats are still this division’s gold standard.
And the Dolphins are still chasing.
Miami last won a conference championship and reached a Super Bowl in ever-receding 1984.
The Pats win them so routinely — Brady has three rings and might not be finished — that receiver Wes Welker, when asked after the game what winning the conference means, half-joked, “It’s kinda just another hat and T-shirt.”
Something has to change if the Dolphins are to make their move toward consistent playoff contention. Maybe that will come if and when Tannehill blossoms into a star. Maybe it won’t come until Brady, showing zero sign of decline at age 35, finally retires.
In any case it has to start with Miami claiming command in its own division, against the one team it most has to beat.
The New York Jets always stir more emotion (and noise) as Miami’s supposed fiercest rival, but everybody in Miami’s locker room knows who the real nemesis is.
That’s why Reggie Bush said after Sunday’s loss, “This is a game we wanted to win bad. It meant a lot of things for us.”
It might have meant the first hint of a changing of the guard.
Instead it only reminded that the Patriots are still the team Miami wants to be when it grows up.