By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
It's not hyperbole to suggest that we may have just witnessed the worst regular season loss of the Bill Belichick era.
Consider the circumstances. The Patriots needed a win or a Chiefs loss to secure a first-round playoff bye. Their opponent, a Dolphins team that entered Sunday with four wins on the season, had nothing to play for expect spoiling the Patriots' hopes of getting Wild Card weekend off.
Even through all the un-Patriot-like mistakes peppered throughout the Pats' shocking 27-24 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, they came within one defensive stop of doing enough to get the job done. Then DeVante Parker flat-out beat Stephon Gilmore, and minutes later, the Dolphins were celebrating their fifth win on the Patriots' field.
Gilmore has been arguably the Patriots' best overall player in 2019. He entered Sunday looking like a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But after Parker toasted him and the Patriots secondary for eight catches and 137 yards, including a massive 24-yard grab in the final two minutes to help set up the game-winning touchdown, Gilmore's chances to win end-of-season hardware took a huge hit.
But Gilmore doesn't play for individual awards, and nor does anyone on the Patriots. They play to win the Lombardi Trophy. And now they'll have to do it without a first-round bye for the first time under Belichick. Gilmore's ill-timed face-plant against Parker is at the center of that disappointment.
"I feel like I let 52 other players down today," said Gilmore. "But [Parker] made some plays. It is what it is."
It can't be overstated how pivotal Parker was in the final two minutes. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had just recovered his own fumble and was facing second-and-12 from Miami's own 47-yard line. They weren't exactly close to shocking the Patriots just yet.
But on the next play, Fitzpatrick found enough time to fire it down the right sideline. Gilmore stayed tight in coverage and appeared to have it locked down like he almost always does. But Parker simply went up and high-pointed the ball. One might argue he "wanted" the ball more in that moment. All that matters is Parker came down with it, and made the Dolphins' stunning last-minute win possible.
“It is a lot of fun," said Parker. "You know, we were able to go out there and prove everyone wrong. We just came out and fought hard. We just have to come out next year and play every game hard."
"Well, you know, Steph is a special player and has been all year and has been for years now. For us and for me as a quarterback, I'm always going to rely on my playmakers, and DeVante's been that guy all year long," said Fitzpatrick. "There were a couple that maybe I didn't get in there, make the throw or Steph did a good job with. But I wasn't going to shy away from a matchup - not because I don't respect the other guy, but because I have that much confidence in our guy. DeVante really stepped up big today."
Sunday's result hearkens back to the 2010-12 seasons, when the talented-but-unbalanced Patriots had serious trouble winning if Tom Brady and the offense had a bad day. For this team, it's the same principle, but with the defense. Can they expect to make a Super Bowl run if Gilmore gets repeatedly burned by the other team's top receiver?
Considering the Patriots' flaws and injuries on offense, they are likely going to need another Herculean defensive effort like they got a year ago if they want to hoist a seventh Lombardi Trophy. Gilmore absolutely has to be at the center of that. He's a hard player to bet against, but if a game like Sunday happens again, the Patriots' road may end before Miami.
"I know what type of player I am," said Gilmore. "I just need to go back to the practice field and practice hard to get ready for the next game."
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].