Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 12/2/12
MIAMI GARDENS -- Blaring out of the loudspeakers after Sunday's game at Sun Life Stadium were the Fleetwood Mac lyrics, "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow." Actually, it's more like next season Miami Dolphins fans are now relegated to think about. Given a chance to keep their playoff hopes on life support, Miami's defense played about as well as one could expect against offensive juggernaut New England. But the offense didn't step up, and the Dolphins (5-7) fell 23-16 as the Patriots (9-3) clinched their fourth straight AFC East title. "It's frustrating," said Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline. "The defense gave us an opportunity and offensively we didn't capitalize. So offensively we take lot of ownership on that." It's doubtful Miami's defense could have done too much better against the Patriots. They scored 11 points less than their seasonal average and had just 321 yards of total offense, nearly 115 below their average. New England quarterback Tom Brady had riddled the Dolphins for 821 in two games last season and had been averaging 299 per game this season. But he was a hardly spectacular, going 24-of-40 Sunday for 238 yards with one touchdown and an interception while being sacked four times. Meanwhile, Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill was mediocre. He was just 9-of-21 for 102 yards in the first three quarters but did pad his stats late and finished 13 of 29 for 186 yards. "I think we left a lot of plays out there," said Tannehill, whose offense, not helping by losing perennial Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long for the game in the first quarter due to a left triceps injury, amassed just 277 yards. "I feel like we battled, we hung in there and we were fighting to the end. But it's got to be consistent. It's got to be four quarters of executing." Special teams mistakes didn't help Miami's defense out either. A botched snap by John Denney in the opening minutes and punter Brandon Fields then dropping the ball gave the Patriots the ball at the Miami 12. They soon took a 7-0 lead on a 2-yard run by Stevan Ridley. Early in the second quarter, a roughing the kicker call on Miami safety Jimmy Wilson kept a New England drive alive. The Patriots eventually scored on a 7-yard TD pass from Brady to Wes Welker for a 14-3 lead. "Too many mistakes," said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who also saw Tannehill lose a fumble that led to a 43-yard field goal by Stephan Gostowski for a 17-3 New England lead late in the second quarter. "To beat a good opponent in December, you have to play better." Still, with Miami's defense holding its own against New England, it makes many wonder how different this season could have been had the Dolphins not kicked away leads in September overtime losses to Arizona and the New York Jets. It also didn't help that the Dolphins flubbed a pair of winnable games last month against Tennessee and Buffalo. "At the beginning of the season, we got to win those games," said Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai. "But we can't go back. It's a tough league. You never know what can happen." What would have to happen for the Dolphins to make the playoffs is a miracle. They're two games behind Cincinnati (7-5) and Pittsburgh (7-5) for the final AFC Wild Card spot, and two of their final four games are on the road against San Francisco and New England. Meanwhile, the Patriots have gotten their first step out of the way, clinching their ninth playoff berth in 10 seasons. They still have on their mind getting one of the top two seeds in the AFC, which would give them a first-round playoff bye. "It means something," Welker, who caught 12 passes for 103 yards, said of winning another division title. "I guess you kind of get spoiled at times. It's kind of just another hat and T-shirt, but they are not easy to come by." They weren't when Welker played for the Dolphins from 2004-06 and they missed the playoffs each season. If Miami doesn't make it this season, it would mark 10 of 11 years sitting home. The Dolphins at least made it a bit interesting down the stretch. They cut the deficit to 20-13 on a 33-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter with 8:28 left in the game. That set the stage for Sunday's only major blemish for Miami's defense. The Dolphins, who had slowed New England's rushing game throughout the day, watched the Patriots grind more than seven minutes off the clock and all but wrap up the game on a 20-yard field goal by Gostkowski with 1:10 left. "That part is frustrating," defensive end Cameron Wake, whose Dolphins got a 42-yard field goal by Carpenter with 31 seconds left before they failed to recover an onside kick, said of New England's late drive. "We didn't get a stop." But the defense can't be blamed too much. As for the offense, that was another story. "Overall, offensively our production wasn't good enough to win," Philbin said. No, it wasn't. And for that reason Dolphins fans can start thinking about next season. Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter @christomasson
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