Patriots’ road to the Super Bowl just got so, so much tougher

New England Patriots, NFL Playoffs

With a loss to the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots are the No. 3 seed in the AFC. Their path to the Super Bowl just became much harder.

The New England Patriots weren’t supposed to lose to the Miami Dolphins in Week 17. The Dolphins, who started the season 0-7 and ended with a 5-11 record, had not won a meaningful game in Foxborough since 2000.

But the Dolphins took an early 10-0 lead on the Patriots. And even when New England came back to tie in the game, the Dolphins stayed in it. In the end, Miami scored a touchdown with 24 seconds left on the clock. Tom Brady got the ball back, but couldn’t find the magic of a game-tying field goal or a game-winning touchdown.

The combination of New England losing to Miami and the Kansas City Chiefs beating the Los Angeles Chargers means the Chiefs overtake the Patriots as the No. 2 seed in the AFC. The Chiefs — not the Patriots– will have a first-round bye.

The last time the Patriots played in the Wild Card Round was 2009.  They lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens, 33-14. The Patriots have only played in the Wild Card Round three times during the Tom Brady era, and they have never qualified for a Super Bowl without a first-round bye. In those three seasons, they only made it to the AFC Championship once.

The Patriots are hard to read right now. On the one hand, they haven’t really looked like themselves. Brady’s stats aren’t what they once were, they aren’t dominating teams, and they actually had to compete for the AFC East title. On the other hand, they’re 12-4 and spent the first half of the season undefeated. This wouldn’t be the first time the Patriots struggled at the end of the year and really turned it on in the playoffs. But they also just lost to the Miami Dolphins.

It’s not clear yet who the Patriots will face in the Wild Card round. Currently, they are slotted to face the Tennessee Titans, but the late window of games could put the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Oakland Raiders in that spot. The Patriots destroyed the Steelers in their season opener earlier this year, but Pittsburgh is a very different team now. The other two teams would be a new challenge for New England.

You can never count out the Patriots. But one thing is clear: the road to the Super Bowl is much more difficult than any New England has ever taken before.

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