It’s back to reality for the Patriots, who now should focus on next year’s draft


The Patriots are good at putting up a fight. That’s admirable. But they don’t have anyone on offense to make a big play when the moment demands one.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff
The Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill, who beat J.C. Jackson for a 42-yard touchdown, is a true difference-maker. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .

  • Tyreek Hill #10 of the Miami Dolphins stiff arms Jack Jones #13 of the New England Patriots during the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on October 29, 2023 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

    After snuffing out top receivers all season, a banged-up Patriots defense meets its match in Tyreek Hill

  • What Patriots’ JuJu Smith-Schuster said about limited snaps, benches-clearing hit

So now we know for sure. The Patriots’ surprising victory over the Bills a week ago was a good time, but the hope it provided was fleeting and false.

It wasn’t a turnaround. It was a temporary reprieve from reality.

It was a case of a mediocre-to-bad team defeating a good but comfortable one, which happens in the NFL every Sunday.

The truth revealed itself for good in the Patriots’ 31-17 loss to the Dolphins Sunday, which looked an awful lot like their 24-17 loss to the Dolphins in Week 2. This time they managed to jump to a 7-0 lead, but they were down double digits by halftime, and the team featuring a massive advantage in high-end talent prevailed again.

The Patriots are good at putting up a fight. That’s admirable. But they don’t have anyone on offense to make a big play when the moment demands one.

The Bills win was nice. But the Dolphins dragged us back to reality. The rest of this Patriots season should be dedicated to getting into the best position to draft true difference-makers.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .

Three players who were worth watching

Players suggested in the Unconventional Preview: Tyreek Hill, Demario Douglas, Raheem Mostert

Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle: I’m making the executive decision to package them together here, in part because they work so well in tandem, but also because they’re dual sources of envy for Patriots fans. (Receivers with Hill’s game-breaking ability come around a couple of times a generation, but couldn’t the Patriots at least spend a first-round pick on someone as good as Waddle in the next year or two?)

The Patriots have done a decent job on Hill over the years, but he can do his damage at any given moment, and that’s exactly what happened Sunday. With 22 seconds left in the first quarter, he raced past J.C. Jackson (who mostly looked like the Chargers version of himself Sunday), Marte Mapu arrived late with help, and — like lightning striking without a thunderous warning — Hill had a 42-yard touchdown catch. The Patriots’ early lead was already a memory.

Hill, who went over 1,000 yards receiving for the season during the game, made plays all day, including a 2-yard gain on a fourth-and-1 screen at the Patriots’ 8 in the second quarter that set up Miami’s second touchdown. He finished with eight catches for 112 yards and the score.

When Hill wasn’t crushing the Patriots’ spirit, it’s because Waddle was. He made big catches from the get-go — he set the tone with a 17-yard catch on fourth and 1 on Miami’s first possession, though that drive sputtered. On the third-quarter drive in which Miami went up 24-10, his 23-yard grab on third and 9 was the pivotal play. And he iced the game with a 31-yard touchdown catch with 2:43 left, giving the Dolphins a 31-17 lead that the Patriots wouldn’t have been able to overcome if they were allowed to play 12 versus 11.

Waddle — who had seven catches for 121 yards and that clinching TD — and Hill became the first receivers to go over 100 yards against the Patriots this season. They are, in a word, inevitable.

Kyle Dugger: Tagovailoa (324 passing yards, 3 TDs) and his superb receivers eventually had their way, but the Patriots did force him into a rare mistake early. At 4:37 of the first quarter, Dugger caught Tagovailoa staring down Hill, hopped the route, and intercepted the telegraphed pass, returning it 15 yards to the Dolphins’ 30. Three plays later, the Patriots had a 7-0 lead. Dugger also had a sack and a tackle for a loss among his team-high eight stops. Wouldn’t be a bad time to sign this guy to a contract extension.

Grievance of the game

It’s no excuse for the outcome or the Patriots’ offensive performance, but the officiating left something to be desired in this game. In the second quarter, on the Dolphins’ go-ahead touchdown drive, Jackson got called for a pass interference penalty in the end zone so ticky-tack that not even Bill Polian would have whined about it. But the most egregious officiating decision was the failure to call a specific and obvious penalty. Dolphins defensive back DeShon Elliott committed a blatant helmet-to-helmet hit against defenseless Patriots receiver DeVante Parker near midfield in the third quarter. Parker was knocked from the game with a head injury, and the situation was reminiscent of a Monday night game last season when then-teammate Nelson Agholor had to wave his arms dramatically to get the officials’ attention when Parker was wobbling after taking a hit to the head. Cam Newton is the all-time leader in taking brutal shots without drawing a flag, but Parker is gaining on him.

Three notes scribbled in the margins

Predicted score: Patriots 22, Dolphins 20

Final score: Dolphins 31, Patriots 17

Jalen Ramsey looked like his old playmaking self in his season and Dolphins debut. The six-time Pro Bowl cornerback picked off a Mac Jones duckling and returned 49 yards to the Patriots’ 40 on the first play after the two-minute warning. The play was actually well designed, with Demario Douglas in motion and initially Jones faking like he would go his way, but as the play developed, Jones locked in on Kendrick Bourne and Ramsey read it perfectly, floating over for the easy pick. Ramsey, whose ball skills remind me so much of Ty Law, probably should have taken the return all the way, but he stepped out of bounds while hurdling a Dolphins blocker. He also had a fumble-forcing hit on Ezekiel Elliott earlier in the second quarter, but Elliott batted the ball out of bounds . . . JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 3-yard touchdown reception with 8 minutes, 30 seconds left cut the Dolphins’ lead to 24-17. It was his lone catch of the day. He now has 15 catches for 89 yards — a 5.9 per catch average — and a touchdown this season . . . Bourne, who put the Patriots up 7-0 with a 24-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, had to leave with a knee injury in the fourth quarter. If the Patriots end up trading off parts before the deadline, he should have plenty of appeal to a contender looking for a third receiver — provided he’s healthy.

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