You knew this string of last-second comebacks by the Patriots was going to end sometime, and it finally did Sunday.
After the Pats had fallen behind on a 14-yard, Ryan Tannehill-to-Marcus Thigpen touchdown pass with 1:21 to play, Tom Brady -- attempting to engineer New England's fourth consecutive pull-it-out-at-the-end victory -- drove them from their own 20-yard line to the Dolphins 14 with 27 seconds left. But that's where it ended; the Pats were unable to punch it in from there and fell to Miami, 24-20.
The loss prevented New England, now 10-4, from clinching the AFC East title and, more importantly, pushed the Patriots out of the top seed in the AFC playoffs. They fell back to a game behind the Broncos, who are 11-3. Cincinnati lost as well Sunday night, which means the Patriots avoided dropping to No. 3 in the overall standings. Dropping to that position would mean no first-round bye and force them onto the road for the second and, probably, third rounds.
The frustration was evident on the New England side. Brady took no questions in his barely-longer-than-a-minute stay at the podium for his postgame press conference, dropped a profanity on live television, then stalked off. Bill Belichick, taciturn in the best of times, was only slightly better (though he managed to keep his language suitable for family viewing).
And it's easy to see why. The Pats had the statistical edge in this one -- more first downs (29-20), more net yards (453-378), more time of possession (31:21 to 28:39) -- but, as has happened so often since they won their last Super Bowl, were unable to protect a lead in the closing minutes. There were also several individual breakdowns, among them . . .
-- Stephen Gostkowski missing a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter -- had he hit it, the Pats only would have needed a field goal off their final drive -- and also kicking the ball out of bounds after the Pats had moved in front, 20-17, in the fourth quarter, setting up the Dolphins at their own 40 and giving them a shorter field to drive for their game-winning TD.
-- The Pats' defense, after a Sealver Silga sack of Tannehill had put Miami in a 3rd-and-16 hole at its own 34 with about 3 1/2 minutes left while trailing 20-17, gave up an 11-yard pass from Tannehill to Brian Hartline to set up a 4th-and-5, then allowed a six-yard screen from Tannehill to Charles Clay -- Clay's only reception of the game -- for a first down that kept the game-winning drive alive.
-- On the Pats' last drive, Danny Amendola was unable to hang onto the potential game-winning TD with a leap in the end zone. "I'd like to have that one back," he admitted.
-- Perhaps most importantly, the Rob Gronkowski-less offense struggled in the red zone as much as everyone feared. The Pats went only 1-for-4 once they got inside the 20 (the Dolphins, by contrast, were 2-for-3), and had to settle for field goals after drives of 15 and 16 yards. Those lost points proved to be the difference.
Their one success in the red zone came at the end of the first half. After they'd gotten a 22-yard Gostkowski field goal after their first long drive -- and after the Dolphins flubbed a 41-yard attempt to tie the game when the snap came too early and hit the holder in the helmet -- they cashed in on a 13-yard, third-down pass from Brady to Michael Hoomanawanui, who made a leaping catch in the end zone, for a 10-0 lead with 1:45 left.
But Dolphins coach Joe Philbin used his time outs during that drive to get his offense back on the field before halftime and, in a foreshadowing of what was to come, Tannehill marched Miami 82 yards in 8 plays for a touchdown that cut the lead to 10-7. Michael Wallace scored when he caught a pass on a slant pattern, broke an attempted tackle from Marquice Cole and outraced Steve Gregory (who had a bad angle on the play) to the end zone, a 39-yard catch-and-throw.
Miami tied it in the third quarter on a 32-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal, then went ahead when Daniel Thomas caught a two-yard scoring pass from Tannehill on the first play of the fourth quarter, capping a 10-play, 66-yard drive. The Patriots got to within 17-13 on a 23-yard field goal by Gostkowski after they'd failed to score from the 5 at the end of a 15-play drive, and then went ahead when Brady marched them 73 yards in only six plays, capped by a 24-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman with 4:14 to play for a 20-17 lead.
The lead lasted for about three minutes, which is when Tannehill hooked up with Thigpen -- who torched Dont'a Hightower on the pass route -- for the go-ahead score.
Brady -- throwing 13 times as he worked against the Dolphins' injury-depleted secondary -- moved the Pats from their own 20 with 1:15 remaining to the Miami 14 with 27 seconds left. But he threw three consecutive incompletions before Miami defensive back Michael Thomas, playing his first NFL game, sealed the third consecutive victory for the Dolphins (8-6) by intercepting a pass in the end zone on fourth down.
While the loss was damaging to their seeding in the AFC playoffs, it's still going to be almost impossible for the Pats not to win the division. They lead Miami by two games with two to play, and one more victory (or one more Dolphin defeat) will seal it for them.
On Sunday, though, they didn't play like champions. As Belichick and -- especially -- Brady are well aware.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.