MIAMI — You’d be hard-pressed to find a worse regular-season loss for the Patriots when it comes to going from one second the game is won to the next it being lost.
The Patriots led by five points with seven seconds left and the ball 69 yards away from the end zone, but miraculously, a completion and several laterals later, Kenyan Drake found the end zone and Miami literally ran away with a 34-33 win.
“Just the way it ended, I mean, it sucked,” Rob Gronkowski said. “I mean, I’ve never really been a part of anything like that. I feel like it's going to test our character big time, how we bounce back from something like that.”
Gronkowski was in the game replacing Devin McCourty in case of a Hail Mary, but that was very unlikely considering Ryan Tannehill would have needed to throw the ball 70-plus yards. The Patriots tight end slipped and couldn't make the tackle as Drake ran into the end zone.
There’s no question the Patriots’ character will be tested, and how they respond will ultimately determine the fate of the 2018 season.
“This is a character-building opportunity for our football team,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the game. “We’ll see how we handle it.”
Fortunately for them, the loss did not impact things very much when it comes to the postseason and the playoff standings.
Due to both the Texans and Steelers also losing Sunday, the Patriots didn’t loose any ground. If the playoffs began today, they would still be the No. 2 seed and get a first-round bye, and they do not need any help to earn that first-round bye. If they take care of business the next three weeks, they will avoid playing on wild card weekend.
The No. 1 seed officially seems out of reach as they would need to win out and have the Chiefs/Chargers loose two out of three. (A lot will be decided when it comes to the No. 1 seed Thursday night when the Chargers and Chiefs meet in Kansas City.)
On the other hand, because of such a tough loss Sunday it can be easy for things to spiral in the other direction.
The Steelers will be a desperate team next Sunday in Pittsburgh as they have lost two straight games and now find themselves battling Baltimore for the AFC North title. If the Patriots do slip, the Texans are right there to jump them in the standings. Houston takes on the Jets, Eagles and Jaguars the rest of the way, so really any loss by the Patriots would likely mean it would overtake them in the standings.
Dropping to the No. 3 seed and having to play on wild card weekend would be a huge hit to the Patriots’ chances of reaching the Super Bowl.
The last time the Patriots played a wild card game was the 2009 playoffs when they lost to the Ravens. Also, playing on wild card weekend likely means all road games after that, and the Patriots have not won a road playoff game since the 2006 playoffs.
The Patriots need three wins the rest of the way to ensure they get that bye and then see what happens either playing on the road for the AFC title game, or getting some help with the No. 1 seed getting knocked off and then hosting the game.
“We have to continue to believe in one another, believe in our process, not panic, not point fingers and I think really lean on the character that I believe the men in this locker room have,” Slater said. “I think it is a great opportunity for us to show that this week. I think we have a lot of men in here that are grounded and rooted in the right things.”
While Sunday didn’t go the way the Patriots envisioned, they can either use the game to come together, or go the other way and potentially have it be the reason for things to spiral out of control and not reach the Super Bowl for a third straight season.
The outcome of the 2018 season will depend on it.