The Patriots played like champions. The Dolphins played like a team ready for a long vacation.
In a so-called benchmark game against the AFC East’s gold standard, the Dolphins simply didn’t measure up Sunday.
New England capitalized on two Miami turnovers, ending the Dolphins’ season with a 28-0 thrashing and earning a first-round playoff bye in the process.
For the Dolphins, it was just one final reminder of the gulf that exists between a team whose own players admit was mediocre, and a franchise that seems destined for another Super Bowl run.
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In a season once filled with promise, the Dolphins staggered to the finish. They dropped six of their last nine games to go 7-9, their fourth consecutive year with a losing record. And Miami’s 2012 grand finale was a complete offensive dud, with the team getting shut out for the first time in two years.
“Disappointing — can’t think of any other word to describe it,” said defensive end Cameron Wake, the lone Pro Bowler on a roster bereft of stars. “Not the way you want to end the season.”
Brian Hartline said he was embarrassed by the effort.
As for coach Joe Philbin: “We have a lot of work to do, obviously.”
When asked if there were positives he might take away from the season, Philbin responded: “In a lot of ways, certainly. But right this minute, it doesn’t feel that way.”
That’s because all the deficiencies the Dolphins thought they had fixed in recent weeks bubbled to the surface again in an ugly final 60 minutes.
The offensive line was a mess, allowing a season-high seven sacks and consistently getting whipped at the point of attack (the Dolphins averaged just 3.1 yards per carry).
The defensive backfield was exposed, even before starting corner Dimitri Patterson went down with a high-ankle sprain. Mending Nolan Carroll made the trip and thought his knee injury was well enough that he could play, but learned over the weekend that he wouldn’t.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady showed rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill what a truly elite quarterback looks like, completing 22 of 36 passes for 284 yards and two scores. As for Tannehill, he wasn’t terrible — 20 of 35 for 235 yards — but wasn’t nearly good enough. He threw an inexcusable interception into double coverage, and the official statistician blamed him for a fumble inside the Patriots’ 5 (although it appeared it was Reggie Bush who botched the handoff).
“I feel like I’ve learned something every game — I’ve said that multiple times — but there’s still a lot of work to do,” Tannehill said. “I’m sure I’ll use this offseason to try to elevate my game.”
The Dolphins, flush with draft picks and salary-cap space, will surely try to elevate the talent around him this offseason. But on Sunday, he didn’t have much help. With a back injury keeping Davone Bess out of action, Miami receivers not named Brian Hartline had a combined 32 catches for 428 yards entering the game.
Hartline, as expected, led the team with five catches for 69 yards. And Armon Binns actually caught three balls for 40 yards Sunday, but will be better remembered for the ones he did not. Binns dropped at least three passes, including a likely touchdown in the first half.
Bush let the Dolphins’ only other true scoring opportunity slip through his hands. Down 21-0 in the third quarter, Miami had the ball at the New England 3, with a chance to get back in the game. But Tannehill’s give to Bush ended up on the turf, and the Patriots (12-4) recovered. The game, in essence, was over at that point.
In perhaps his final game in a Dolphin uniform, Bush had just 26 yards on eight carries, falling 14 short of 1,000 for the season.
“We just didn’t make enough plays,” Bush said. “That sums up our season.”
Added Wake: “We look at the majority of the games, and we were right there, going into the final drive. It’s frustrating to know that it’s that close, but in a way, it’s comforting to know it’s not that far away.
“We don’t have to completely revamp. We have steps we have to take to get over that hump, but I think we’ll be fine.”
In the coming months, we’ll learn if Philbin, Jeff Ireland and the rest of the Dolphins brain trust feels the same way.