AFC East Spin cycle: Pats stumble, Dolphins hanging on

Kevin Fishbain
Key matchup: Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill vs. Bills defense

The Patriots’ winning streak came to an end in a wild Sunday night loss to the 49ers, the Dolphins kept their faint playoff hopes on life support with a solid win and the Bills hit rock bottom in Toronto.


What we learned: As bad as the Bills have been over the years, during Chan Gailey's time as head coach they haven’t been a team that quits. It’s just not in their DNA, but Sunday’s performance against Seattle was an embarrassing way to clinch a 13th consecutive season without making the playoffs. After weeks of showing improvement against the run, Buffalo’s run defense regressed badly, especially in the first half, and Seattle took full advantage. Ex-Bill Marshawn Lynch broke tackles left and right, and Russell Wilson scrambled around and ran the zone read as if he was playing a video game. The Bills did not look like they belonged on the same field as the Seahawks, giving up 270 rushing yards, 50 points and three rushing touchdowns to Wilson. It’s the second time this season Buffalo has allowed 50 points. On offense, C.J. Spiller had another good game, and he didn’t have to split carries. Stevie Johnson made a sensational one-handed catch, which was promptly followed up by a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception. To add insult to injury, this was the Bills’ annual game in Toronto, a “home” game for the Bills, but a series that gets plenty of flak from Buffalo fans.

What’s in store next: The Bills head to South Florida in Week 16 to play the Dolphins, finishing the season with back-to-back AFC East games. Buffalo can save some face by eliminating the Dolphins and Jets from playoff contention in back-to-back weeks. They beat Miami in Week 11, using a very good performance from the defense.

What the heck? Pete Carroll’s decision to perform a fake punt in the fourth quarter with a 30-point lead was strange, and arguably bush-league, but it also showed the stark contrast between the two coaches. Carroll apologized afterward and said he should have called off the play, but the split camera shot of the coaches after the play was quite the portrait of what went down in Toronto. Carroll, the jovial coach, was celebrating, and Gailey was emotionless, and had no comment after the game.


What we learned: Miami put together maybe it’s most complete performance of the season, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams in a Week 15 win over the Jaguars. Ryan Tannehill had his best completion percentage (78.6 percent) and passer rating (123.2) of the season, Miami rushed for 180 yards and the defense kept Jacksonville out of the endzone — the Jaguars were 0-for-4 in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. In his return to South Florida, Chad Henne completed only 18-of-34 passes. Miami hit Henne five times, led by DT Jared Odrick’s three hits and one sack. WR Brian Hartline continued to make good in a contract year, catching five passes for 77 yards and collecting 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career. Back to Tannehill; the rookie has understandably been overshadowed by the rest of the sterling 2012 QB class, but he showed off his wheels on Sunday, scrambling for 52 yards, and made a few nice throws on the run.

What’s in store next: The Dolphins are intent on getting to the .500 mark, which may be difficult to do considering they have a Week 17 meeting with the Patriots, but they can get to seven wins, and gain some revenge, this week against the Bills. In Week 11, the Bills’ defense contained Reggie Bush and picked off Tannehill twice. Look for the offense to be more creative and try to get Bush outside to take advantage of a Bills run defense that was exceptionally bad in Week 15.

What the heck? Joe Philbin appeared to get a little too cute at the start of the second half. Holding a 10-3 lead, the Dolphins drove to the Jaguars’ five-yard line before being stopped on third down, and then attempted a fake field goal with holder Brandon Fields misfiring on a pass to TE Anthony Fasano. “It was a play we didn’t execute very well, obviously. The timing wasn’t good. The throw wasn’t great. It didn’t work.” … If the Dolphins can win their final two games, and get some help, we could see a bunch of 8-8 teams tied for the final wild-card spot, so there is some hope, believe it or not.


What we learned: The Pats are not invincible. After several Decembers of winning at home, having not lost a game in the second half of the season since 2009, and coming off a dominant win over a good Texans team, many expected the Patriots to keep rolling. Instead, the turnover bug bit hard, and the defense gave up too many big plays in a 41-34 loss to the 49ers. The Patriots entered Sunday night first in the league with only 10 turnovers, but they coughed it up four times. Tom Brady and the offense, though, made sure no one would completely write off the Patriots, mounting a furious comeback in the second half, remarkably tying the game at 31 after trailing 31-3. That excitement didn’t last. A long kickoff return followed by a quick touchdown pass put the Niners back on top for good. On offense, Brandon Lloyd had a huge game on the outside, and Aaron Hernandez came alive with the rest of the offense in the second half. Brady made the one bad throw that led to his first interception since Week Six, and the 49ers’ pass rush had success rattling the offense in the first half. Stevan Ridley’s fumbling problems returned, as he lost a crucial one and played only 18 snaps. On defense, the Patriots generally avoided giving up a big play to Frank Gore or Colin Kaepernick, but the secondary had too many breakdowns, giving up touchdowns of 24, 34 and 38 yards. The Patriots might have played themselves out of a first-round bye, but their second-half comeback showed enough to keep them as a team to beat in the AFC.

What’s in store next: Things get significantly easier for New England, going from playing one of the most talented teams in the league to one of the worst. The Patriots travel to Jacksonville to take on the woeful Jaguars in Week 16. New England does face a curious playoff situation. They currently hold the No. 3 seed, which would pit them against either the Bengals, Steelers or Jets in the wild-card round, and then, likely, the extremely hot Broncos the next week. A No. 4 seed, which would involve dropping two games to be even with the Ravens, pits the Patriots against the Colts in the wild-card round — a team they clobbered earlier this season, and then a likely matchup with the Texans, a seemingly easier route to New Orleans. Hey, it's something to consider.

What the heck? What is it with the Patriots and 4th-and-short? The famous situation from their 2009 game with the Colts (4th-and-2) returned on Sunday night. Facing 4th-and-a-long-1 from their own 12-yard line with two timeouts remaining and the two-minute warning to come, the Patriots went for it. For one thing, the play didn’t seem to be a high-percentage one on an incomplete pass to Danny Woodhead, but the way the defense subsequently played brought questions to the call. The 49ers kicked a field goal at the two-minute warning, building a 10-point lead. If the Patriots punted and the run defense played the way it did in holding the Niners to a field goal, New England would have gotten the ball back deep in their territory, but only down one score with less than two minutes to play. However, it’s likely the 49ers would have been more creative with their play-calling in that situation. 

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