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Reaction Time: Everything Is Fine/Everything's A Disaster For Patriots After Stunning Loss To Dolphins

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- It's been about 24 hours since the Dolphins pulled off a miracle in Miami. If you're from New England, you might have phrased that sentence slightly differently, something like, "It's been about 24 hours since the Patriots pulled off one of the most embarrassing, crushing meltdowns in football history in Miami, their own personal house of horrors."

Yet however you'd phrase it, it is now officially in the past. It's over, it happened, and the records in the standings now reflect that. As a wise man or woman once said, there's no use crying over spilled milk, and there's no use weeping over the fact that Devin McCourty was on the sidelines so that Rob Gronkowski can play safety even though it's not a Hail Mary situation at all. (That's a real saying. Look it up.)

And so, with reaction to the desperation reaching the point of "WORST REGULAR-SEASON BOSTON SPORTS LOSS EVER," it's time to take a sober look at reasons to believe things are going to be fine in Patriots Land, as well as reasons to prepare for an earlier-than-usual end to the season. We'll just provide the reasons, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Pittsburgh lost, Houston lost, and the No. 2 seed is still the Patriots' to lose

Raiders beat Steelers
Raiders beat Steelers (Photo by Getty Images)

This is priority Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Getting the first-round playoff bye. Little matters more than that, and it remains within the Patriots' control to keep their ice-cold hands wrapped around it.

If we assume that Sunday represented the Patriots' annual stumble against an inferior AFC East opponent (truly, that's a tradition like no other), then we can easily see a scenario where the Patriots win their final three games, finish the year 12-4, and take a well-earned week off from football during Wild Card Weekend. They would then host a divisional round game, while perhaps hoping to get lucky by seeing the No. 1 seed knocked off, thereby leading to an AFC Championship Game in Foxboro. That wouldn't be so bad. It's still a very real possibility.

Hope for the No. 1 seed is fading

Chiefs celebrate
Justin Houston is congratulated by Travis Kelce after recovering a fumble. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

On the other hand, the Patriots did kind of let a beautiful opportunity slip right past them (literally; can we check Kenyan Drake for Vaseline? No? OK. Yeah, yeah, it's over, in the past, etc., etc., etc.) on Sunday. Had they won to improve to 10-3, they'd still be in position to finish 13-3. And ending the season tied with the Chiefs (currently 11-2) would lead to the Patriots jumping into the No. 1 spot in the AFC. That would have been sweet for them.

That now appears to be an opportunity lost. It also may not have been real; the Chargers are 10-3 and can climb past the Chiefs with a win in Arrowhead on Thursday. Maybe the No. 1 seed will belong to the Chargers after all. Though, maybe not; the Chargers finish the year with a home date vs. Baltimore and then a trip to Denver. Those games aren't easy.

But, barring a tie, one of the Chiefs/Chargers will lose next week. What happens after that, we shall see. But there's a very real chance we'll look back upon this Miami meltdown as the moment the Patriots kicked away their chance at home-field throughout the postseason.

Big Ben is hurt, James Conner may not play, and Tom Brady owwwwwnnnns the Pittsburgh Steelers

Tom Brady - Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots
Tom Brady (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Say it with me, friends. Owwwwwns. Oooooooooowwwwnnnnnnssss.

Slap Shot Goalie - Denis Lemieux "who owns the chiefs" by Hockey Monger on YouTube

Tom Brady oooowwwns the Pittsburgh Steelers. As you may have heard, he has gone 8-2 against Pittsburgh in his regular-season career, completing 69 percent of his passes, averaging 312 yards per game, and throwing 25 touchdowns to just four interceptions. He's posted a passer rating of 111.8 in those 10 starts, his second-best mark against any one opponent.

Think about that: The greatest QB of all time has been better against the most consistent AFC challenger than he has been against basically everyone else. (He randomly has a 116.7 rating against the Falcons, which I suppose came in handy in the Super Bowl a few years back.)

Add in three more playoff starts, and three accompanying playoff wins (assist to Big Drew Bledsoe on the first one) with five touchdowns and no picks, and it's been utter dominance for TB12 against the Steelers.

Now factor in that James Conner might not play, and that Ben Roethlisberger is going to be hampered by a rib injury, and that the Steelers JUST LOST A REAL LIVE FOOTBALL GAME TO THE OAKLAND BLEEPING RAIDERS, and a Week 15 game that was circled as a banger back in August may end up being a lopsided romp.

Pressure will be dialed up in Pittsburgh

Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger
Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

At the same time (like I said, we're going with BOTH SIDES here), there are a few factors that could be labeled as "concerning" for next weekend in the Keystone State.

To wit:

--The Steelers, at 7-5-1, will be playing for their postseason lives.
--The Patriots, now 3-4 on the road, have not been good away from Foxboro.
--The Patriots, with Houston breathing down their necks, can't afford to lose anymore.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that winning in Week 14 would have made losing in Week 15 more acceptable. That's because it is counterintuitive. Points to you for raising that issue.

However, perhaps a victory in Miami and the 10-3 record that would have gone with it would have allowed the Patriots to enter Pittsburgh with a bit more confidence. Now, the 9-4 Patriots enter Pittsburgh with some added pressure, knowing that they'll need to play their best road game of the year against a team that will be playing a desperate brand of football in front of its home crowd. By losing this past weekend, the task next weekend becomes that much taller.

Historically, the Kansas City Chiefs have been awwwwful in the playoffs, even at home

Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry celebrates a playoff touchdown in Kansas City. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

So, assuming the standings hold, and the Patriots end up having to travel to Kansas City for the AFC title game, there is this nugget: the Chiefs stink at home in the playoffs. Stink out loud. Grab a clothespin and plug the nostrils. Brace for the Limburger. Capital P, capital U.


The stink is real. Here's the raw data: Since 1994, the Kansas City Chiefs franchise owns a 1-10 record in the postseason. That includes nine one-and-dones.

At home in the playoffs since '94, the Chiefs are 0-6.

Zero and six. Oh and seis.


How's that even possible?

Last year, the Chiefs led 21-3 at halftime over the visiting Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round. The Chiefs lost Travis Kelce and got outscored 19-0 in the second half. They lost. (Those same Titans visited New England the following week and got rolled, 35-14.)

A year prior, the 12-4 Chiefs lost at home to the Steelers in the divisional round. In 2013, the Chiefs led 38-10 in the third quarter in Indianapolis but majestically lost, 45-44.

The lone postseason win for the Chiefs in the last quarter-century came in Houston, when Brian Hoyer started for the Texans and threw four interceptions. (Those Chiefs then lost the following week in Foxboro.)

Obviously, the players change, and the coaches change, but the results have stayed the same. Playing in Arrowhead in a playoff game seems like a scary proposition, but there's just no history of that being true.

Patrick Mahomes could change all of that

Patrick Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

What did those recent Chiefs teams have in common? Alex Smith. Alex Smith! He stinks! In the past four postseason, Smith averaged just 218 passing yards and 1.25 touchdowns per game. That's not going to win many playoff games.

Patrick Mahomes, though? Patrick Mahomes may shift the equation in Kansas City's favor come January. The first-year starter has been electric this season, as evidenced by his league-leading 4,300 yards and 43 touchdowns. (The second-place quarterback in touchdown passes is Andrew Luck at 34. That's ... quick subtraction ... nine fewer! That's wild. And it's crazy.)

While we have no earthly idea how Mahomes will perform under the pressure of the postseason, the signs do suggest that the kid is good enough to carry K.C. to some more playoff victories than the franchise has grown accustomed to over the past 25 years.

Nobody's scared of playing in a soccer stadium

StubHub Center
StubHub Center (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Let's say the Chargers do pass the Chiefs, thus seizing the No. 1 seed. And let's say the Patriots and Chargers both win their divisional round games, thus sending the Patriots to L.A. to face the Chargers with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Would anyone in the entire world be afraid of going into the Chargers' rinky-dink little soccer stadium? Anyone? No? Didn't think so.

The Chargers play in the StubHub Center, which is the home to the L.A. Galaxy of MLS. It seats 27,000 fans, most of whom are often fans of the visiting team. Seriously, look at this:

Not exactly home-field advantage.

If the Patriots have to travel to L.A. for the title game? The Chargers are a very good team, obviously, but the whole road aspect of that proposition is the opposite of daunting.

That defense? Woof

Stephon Gilmore, Brice Butler
Stephon Gilmore, Brice Butler (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

The Patriots have not been immune to the week-to-week performance variances that can prove baffling in the NFL. For that, look no further than the defense. The New England D held the Vikings to just 10 points last week and held the Jets to 13 points a week earlier. The New England defense also held the Dolphins to just seven points earlier in the year in Foxboro.

And then, Sunday happened. Even before the banana sandwich final play, the Patriots' defense was porous for much of the game. Ryan Tannehill looked like Ryan ... ahh ... Ryan uhh ... jeez, there's really no good quarterback named Ryan. Who knew?

Anyways, considering we all witnessed the Patriots' defense have some bright moments last season, only for it all to come crashing down in the Super Bowl against a backup quarterback who isn't every good at quarterbacking, you'd be forgiven if you hold some reservations regarding the true potential of this team. That defense is liable to put forth a real clunker from time to time, and Sunday was evidence of that. (Shoutout to Brandon Bolden, though. That was kind of cool. No? OK, fine.)

Brady and Gronkowski suddenly don't look like washed-up old dudes

Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Not that they ever did. But the people? They were talking. And they were saying things like "old," "washed up," "noodle arm," "lost a step," "THE END IS NEAR." All that stuff.

Hey, some of it may prove to be true. But on Sunday, ol' Tommy and Bobby were living like it was 2011. Brady was slinging deep balls for TDs to Cordarrelle Patterson (WHAT?!), Gronkowski was running this way and that way, all over the Dolphins' defense, racking up 107 receiving yards and a touchdown while catching all eight passes thrown his way. The big bad bulldozer was back. Things looked good.

Of course, in a loss, nobody cares much about the stats. But, with everyone so uniquely tuned in to their levels of concern about the quarterback and the tight end for the past few months, that level would have to be dialed back to the green zone. At least for another week.

(This all excludes commentary on Gronkowski as a defensive player. There, he still needs some work. But with a few years of fine-tuning, he just might prove capable.)

The issues remain the issues

Rex Burkhead
Rex Burkhead (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

There's that old football sayingthe standard is the standard. For the Patriots, we can adjust it to say the issues are still the issues.

Red zone offense? Still not great. Three-for-six on Sunday. No bueno.

The defense? We covered that. It's been a real problem, especially on the road. The Jaguars, Lions, Titans, Bears and Dolphins have all had big days vs. Belichick's and Brian Flores' defense.

The 29th-ranked rushing offense? They couldn't move the ball against one of the league's worst run defenses. That was even with Rex Burkhead in the mix. (Burkhead had two yards on four carries, and one catch for three yards.)

Issues? Still issues.

They always lose four games

Chris Maragos
Chris Maragos celebrates against the Patriots in 2015. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Patriots? They've been the best team in the NFL for some time. Two decades, really. Pretty crazy, buddy.

And you know, going back to 2001, do you know how many games per year the Patriots lose? Four! Four games. Every year. That's the average, despite a zero-loss season in 2007 that you may have heard about once or twice.

That's a total of 67 losses since 2001. Have all of them been covered as if the apocalypse has descended down upon New England? No ... just all of the losses since, maybe, 2014, give or take a couple of years.

Those losses often come against the AFC East, no matter the lower class or quality of the opponent. The Patriots have lost to the Bills when the Bills have stunk, the Patriots have lost to the Jets when the Jets have stunk, and the Patriots have most certainly lost to all different variations of Dolphins teams over the years.

The dramatics of Sunday obviously add a different element. But, I mean, overreaction abounded quite a bit after that face-plant. Fact is, if the Patriots take care of the business that they're capable of, then they're going to finish this season with ... four losses. Same as always, pretty much.

Will players start to doubt Belichick?

Bill Belichick
Bill Belichick (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

This is speculative, of course. And, frankly, it would have been preposterous to even suggest as recently as 11 months ago. But with the Malcolm Butler Super Bowl decision still likely on many players' minds, the decision to keep the fastest defender and best tackler off the field for the final play in Miami is simply perplexing. The decision to have Rob Gronkowski on the field is equally baffling.

If we on the outside are questioning how such a decision could possibly have been made in a situation like that, then it's plausible that some players might harbor some of the same questions. They are, after all human beings.

Ultimately this probably won't be a major concern. The Patriots are still a top team in the NFL, and they're still likely to earn a first-round playoff bye. Patriots players likely understand that they're in a better position than most NFL players are with regard to coaching. And with a Super Bowl still attainable, the players should be able to focus their energy on winning games instead of questioning the coach.

But, well, you know. Mental notes are being kept. That's all.

No one died

Tom Brady
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Thanks, Bill.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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