FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots, now 10-4, could have clinched a playoff spot Sunday — wrapped up the AFC East and set themselves up as the frontrunner for the No. 1 seed in the conference with a win in Miami.
But New England’s latest last-second comeback attempt came up short in South Beach as quarterback Tom Brady’s fourth-and-goal throw was intercepted in the end zone and coach Bill Belichick’s team went home with the 24-20 loss and plenty left to battle for over the next two weeks.
And a Patriots team that’s dealing with life without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski — the latest Pro Bowl name added to New England’s injured reserve list that already included defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo — heads toward Sunday afternoon’s game in Baltimore against the Ravens with far more questions than is normal for the team at this late point in the season.
After watching the film from his team’s latest loss in Miami — New England is a mere 7-7 in 14 trips to South Beach since 2000 — Belichick understands the line between winning and losing has been fine this fall, and will likely continue to be that way.
Another game was decided in the final minutes by a single score — 11 of the Patriots 14 games this season have been decided by seven points or less — and now New England faces a Ravens team fighting for its life to retain a chance at defending its Super Bowl title.
“We just came up a little short. … We had some plays that we’d all like to have back and one or two would have been a difference but just didn’t turn out that way,” Belichick said. “We just have to try to continue to [play] with more consistency, just improve in everything and turn the page and get ready for Baltimore. That’s pretty much where we’re at here.”
The loss in Miami was not only New England’s fourth of the season overall, it was the team’s fourth on the road. That’s clearly a troubling trend for a team heading to Baltimore on Sunday, but Belichick avoided looking at the specific challenges of winning away from Foxborough, where the Patriots are 7-0 this season.
“We’ve had close games on the road; we’ve had close games at home,” Belichick said in his detached, matter-of-fact style. “Look, we have eight games on the road; we have eight games at home. That’s the way it’s going to be every year. We’ve had close ones on the road; we’ve had close ones at home.”
Belichick is also myopically focused on the game this Sunday, deferring any talk of No. 1 seeds, playoff byes or any other issues that fans and media might be hashing out.
“The challenge this week is Baltimore. That’s all there is, is Baltimore. Certainly nothing else to talk about,” Belichick said.
“We just got to win the game we’re playing this week against Baltimore. That’s all we’re concerned about. I don’t care about the rest of it. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Brady was slightly more specific about New England’s current state when he did his weekly Monday morning interview with sports radio WEEI in Boston.
“Our margin of error is very slim,” Brady told WEEI radio in Boston of his team’s third loss of the year by four points or less. “We can’t make any mistakes or give them any opportunities. If we have plays that are there to be made, then I’ve got to throw it and hit it. We’ve got to come up with them.
“We’re not winning by 30 points. Every game comes down to the end. We’ve just got to do a better job when we have opportunities as a team in all three phases to make plays to help us secure wins.”
He did echo his coach’s thoughts on the fact that discussion of playoff seeding or anything of the such is irrelevant at this point.
“It doesn’t matter at all,” Brady said. “We haven’t even qualified for anything. We’ve got 10 wins, and 10 wins is fine, it’s OK. But it hasn’t gotten us anything. What we need to do is start playing better football. I think that’s the only thing I really care about, is us playing better football and seeing if we can do better on a more consistent basis.”
That will be the focus Sunday afternoon in Baltimore against a Ravens team that New England has faced in each of the last two AFC title games, with the sides splitting those contests. It will be a playoff atmosphere with playoff positioning on the line. Given the history of games between the two franchises, and New England’s history of close calls this season, it’s likely to be another dogfight for Belichick, Brady and a Patriots team looking to find some sort of consistent identity heading toward January.