Five years after it happened, we revisit the famed Miracle in Miami, which gave the Dolphins a stunning win over the Patriots. Photo Credit: CBS The Dolphins and their fans celebrate the Miracle in Miami, which gave them a stunning win over the Patriots on Dec. 9, 2018. Photo Credit: CBS

If we run through NFL history, we can probably find greater plays and we can certainly find more perplexing ones. But it’s unlikely that any play in the history of the league will be as simultaneously great and perplexing as the Miracle in Miami, which celebrated its fifth anniversary on Saturday.

Tom Brady became starting quarterback of the New England Patriots in 2001. From that time through his final season in New England, the Patriots had an 8-11 record (8-10 with Brady) at the venue now known as Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins. The struggles in Miami were particularly strange given the records of both franchises in the era.

The Patriots won six Super Bowls in that era, played in three others, won 17 AFC East titles, made 17 playoff trips and didn’t have a single losing season. Over the same timeframe, the Dolphins won a single AFC North title, earned three playoff appearances, won zero postseason games and had only six winning seasons. But in Miami, the rivalry was much closer and even slanting toward the Dolphins.

And if you were to ask a member of the Patriots or any of their fans which game best typified the team’s struggles in Miami, it would likely either be a 2004 Monday Night game when the 2-11 Dolphins beat the 12-1 Patriots or the 2018 game, which ended with the Miracle in Miami.

Before the play

The Patriots entered the game at 9-3, looking to clinch the AFC East with a win. Miami, meanwhile, came in at 6-6. The Dolphins still had a chance to make the playoffs but even with a win over the Patriots, it would be an uphill climb. In the earlier season meeting between the two teams, the Patriots blew the Dolphins out, winning 38-7.

This was a much different game, though. New England trailed 28-27 going into the fourth quarter. But a pair of short field goals from Stephen Gostkowski put the Patriots ahead 33-28. One thing of note. Gostkowski had missed an earlier extra point, as well as a field goal. Had those kicks gone through and everything else went the same, New England would have had a safe 37-28 lead in the final seconds.

The Patriots also had a chance to put the game away on their final offensive possession. Leading 30-28, New England was set up with a first-and-goal after a huge pass interference penalty. But Miami’s defense held, forcing a Gostkowski field goal with 14 seconds remaining. But even though the Patriots left some potential points on the board, it didn’t seem like it would matter.

The situation

A 15-yard kickoff return from Kalen Ballage gave the Dolphins the ball on their own 31 with seven seconds remaining. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill could not reach the end zone from where Miami was (remember that), which left the Dolphins with two options.

Option one would be a quick attempt to gain 10-15 yards, giving Tannehill a chance to reach the end zone with a Hail Mary. But since Miami did not have a time-out, it would have to be to the sidelines.

Option two would be a lateral play.

Tannehill’s pass went to Kenny Stills, who came down with the ball just outside the right hash marks at the Dolphins 45. Even though the pass was more or less to the center of the field and Tannehill took a little longer than ideal to get rid of the ball, getting to the sidelines wasn’t completely impossible. DeVante Parker was trailing the play and had his momentum moving toward the sideline with no Patriots standing in his way.

But after catching the ball, Stills turned upfield. Getting to the sidelines was no longer an option. Barring a defensive penalty, this would be the game’s final play.

The Miracle

Stills pivoted before flipping the ball back to Parker. Parker ran about five yards before lateraling the ball to Kenyan Drake. Drake caught the ball just short of midfield and in a complete sprint forward. New England linebacker Kyle Van Noy dove to try to bring Drake down, but couldn’t quite do it.

After getting by Van Noy, Drake cut back in and ran at full speed for a while. The players behind him were defensive linemen and weren’t likely to chase the running back down. Safety Patrick Chung had an angle on Drake but was taken out on a block by guard Ted Larsen. Only two defenders had a realistic chance at Drake, Duron Harmon and Rob Gronkowski. As Drake got to the New England 25, he cut back toward the sideline, effectively taking Harmon out of the play. It was down to Drake and Gronkowski.

Gronkowski had three potential ways to spoil the play. One would have been to just tackle Drake. Two would have been to cut him off and force him out of bounds. Three would have been to force Drake to slow down, giving trailing cornerback J.C. Jackson time to catch up and help. And while Drake had a speed advantage, Gronkowski had the better angle.

But Gronkowski stumbled and while he did manage to stay on his feet, slowing down took the angle away. Drake now had a clear sprint to the end zone. And while Gronkowski and Jackson both got reasonably close with desperation drives, it was not to be, Drake scored, giving the Dolphins the stunning win.

The aftermath

For anyone previously unfamiliar with the play, Gronkowski’s name might have seemed a bit out of place in the final sequence.

Gronkowski, while one of the greatest players in NFL history, is not a defensive player. In a Hail Mary situation, it makes complete sense to have the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski playing defense and trying to make a play on the ball. Receivers are generally taller than defensive backs and are more familiar with trying to come down with a jump ball. Gronkowski would negate that edge.

The problem with that logic, as we previously detailed, is that this was not a Hail Mary situation. Even if Tannehill managed to throw the ball from the line of scrimmage, that’s a 69-yard heave. Not many quarterbacks have that kind of arm strength. That renders Gronkowski’s skills as a receiver moot. As great as Gronkowski was, he was never particularly adept at making tackles and cutting off angles.

With that, there was a lot of second-guessing of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Belichick, of course, has never been known for going into much detail. In an interview on Boston’s WEEI the following day, Belichick summed the loss up by saying, “Look, it’s the National Football League. Nobody died,” H/T Nick O’Malley,

As far as what the game and play meant for both teams going forward, the impact was actually fairly minimal.

The Dolphins would not win again that season. They were routed the following week, losing 41-17 to the Minnesota Vikings. That loss was followed by a 17-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a 42-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Coach Adam Gase was fired after the season.

New England did shake the loss off, though it did take some time. The Patriots had a tough 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week, but rebounded to win their final two regular season games, defeating the Bills 24-12 and the New York Jets 38-3. With that, New England won the AFC East and earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC. At the time, that was good enough for a postseason bye week.

Did the loss cost the Patriots a No. 1 seed? Technically, yes. New England finished the season at 11-5, one game behind the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots defeated the Chiefs in the regular season so they would have had the tiebreaker. But Kansas City lost its next two games before finishing with a win in the season’s final game. It’s hard to say that the final three weeks of the season would have played out the same way if the Miracle in Miami never happened.

Additionally, even if we could say with zero doubt that the loss cost the Patriots the No. 1 seed, things went OK for New England that postseason. The Patriots did have to go to Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game but came away with a win. Two weeks later, New England defeated the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. The Patriots have not returned to the Super Bowl or even won a playoff game since. So, effectively, the dynasty ended how it started, with a Super Bowl win over the Rams.

There weren’t nearly as many laterals as we saw 36 years earlier in the famed Stanford-Cal play and there was no Stanford Band — or any band — for the Dolphins to run through. But despite that, and the fact that the Miracle in Miami didn’t end up meaning that much in terms of how the rest of the season played out, the play remains as amazing and absolutely baffling as it was five years ago.

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