"Definitely didn't expect this," Head Coach Mike McDaniel said. "It's pretty frustrating, we've got a lot of guys laying it on the line. You want to get the results you feel like the team deserves and should get, and you come up short."
The Dolphins are an immensely talented outfit, but it hasn't reflected in the win-loss column that last five weeks. Thanks to a scorching 12-week start that produced an 8-3 record, Miami remains alive heading into the final week of the season.
Miami will need a win over the Jets – who were eliminated from contention following their fifth-straight loss – and a Patriots loss in Buffalo.
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Here are the three takeaways from the Dolphins' 23-21 loss to the Patriots.
1. Critical errors
Let's go back to the quote from the McDaniel in the lede.
"That's kind of the nature of football when you make critical mistakes with points scored off turnovers and some – I think we had a collection of penalties that really cost us, so those types of things will leave you with the type of result we were trying to avoid," he said.
In a game where each team snaps the ball an average of 65 times per game, no one play is the determining factor. There are moments that stand out above the rest, however. For Miami, these moments have felt a little like Bill Murray in the 1993 classic, Groundhog's Day. Last week, a procedural error erased a first-and-goal set up, pushed Miami back to the 30-yard-line, and the next play was an interception.
Sunday, in Foxboro, quarterback Skylar Thompson scrambled for a first down on third-and-9. He stepped out of bounds at the New England 26-yard-line with 14:46 to play in the game, trailing by two. Instead, the Dolphins were flagged for an illegal shift. The foul brought Miami back to the New England 42-yard-line for a third-and-12. Again, like last week, the next play is a turnover.
2. Gotta flip the script
The same script has been perpetuated on defense and special teams. On balance, Miami's defense rose to the occasion the last two weeks. Removing New England's defensive score, the defense was only on the field for 17 of the Patriots points, for all intents and purposes. This, one week after surrendering just 26 points to the Packers despite four offensive giveaways and a 93-yard kickoff return.
Still, it's the late-game march that carries the suspense of a bad independent film. It's happened in nearly each loss. In seven of the eight losses this season, Miami's foe drove late in the game to either extend the lead to two scores or walk it off with a game-winning kick (Buffalo).
There's another commonality in those losses – missed field goals. Miami has misses in five of the eight defeats. Three of those missed kicks would've given Miami a lead with less than 20 minutes to play in the game. The latest miss – the 51-yarder in yesterday's defeat – would've given Miami a 10-7 lead at halftime, in a game the Dolphins lost by two points, no less.
"I struggle not to start with myself," McDaniel said. "I think that will always be the case. But I think we'll see on the tape that there's a lot of people that could have done X, Y or Z that much better to win a two-point loss."
3. It all comes down to Week 18
Despite all the frustrations, Miami can end a five-year playoff drought with a victory Sunday against the Jets and a New England loss in Buffalo.
"We have one in particular against the New York Jets that we have to respond to, and that's what I'll be focused on getting the team channeled towards," McDaniel said. "Because you go through tough stretches in seasons, you go through tough stretches in games, and we have to learn how to get ourselves out of that at some point in time."