MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Matthew Slater quickly sounded the alarm.
The consistent thread in the final three New England losses of the regular season — all of which came in the Patriots' final four games — was slow starts, and another one doomed them Sunday in a 33-24 defeat at Miami.
So, a few minutes after the Dolphins game was over, the veteran receiver and locker room leader made it clear: The slow starts have to end, or the season probably will much sooner than the Patriots would like.
"Whether it's energy, focus, execution, you name it, we're not doing anything well enough early in the games to give ourselves a chance to get in a rhythm and remain competitive early on," Slater said. "And obviously, it's tough playing from behind — and now the next team we play will be the best team we've seen all year. So, if we play like that, it'll be really challenging for us."
He said that without even knowing if the Patriots were heading to Buffalo or Cincinnati — it ended up as Buffalo — for a wild-card game on Saturday, because it was irrelevant. A slow start in the regular season, that's bad. A slow start in the playoffs makes it that much tougher to win and advance.
His teammates were likely listening.
"It's a new season," tight end Hunter Henry said. "It really is. Everything is on the line now."
Added rookie quarterback Mac Jones: "We have to play better."
A 14-0 deficit midway through the first quarter on Sunday set the tone, even though New England rallied in the final minutes to get within three — before giving up a touchdown to Miami's defense on the final play of the Dolphins' season. It was reminiscent in some ways of falling behind 20-7 to Buffalo and 20-0 to Indianapolis, both in December, both becoming losses after futile comeback tries.
"Wasn't good enough today," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Leave it at that."
The Patriots' troubles were not limited to the slow start.
They could have gotten the ball back at the end of the third quarter after forcing Miami to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Dolphins 33. Down 24-10, it was not the time for New England to make a mistake.
And that's exactly what was made.
Defensive end Lawrence Guy was flagged for illegal formation, the 5 yards being four more than Miami needed for a drive-extending first down, the Dolphins' offense remained on the field and more time ticked, ticked, ticked away for the Patriots and their comeback hopes.
The penalty proved costly. Jason Sanders kicked a 49-yard field goal with 10:55 left, giving the Dolphins a 27-10 lead — a three-possession margin that cost the Patriots four valuable minutes as well.
"Lot of poor execution, poor coaching, poor planning," Belichick said, repeating a similar refrain that he used throughout his postgame media availability.
Before long, it was over. And while the Patriots know corrections must be made, Slater said it's also important to not let the feeling they had Sunday night linger for too long.
Buffalo awaits. The postseason is here.
"It's over with. We better leave this game here in Miami," Slater said." We're going to leave it here. Look, it's real now. We've got to go. However sorry we feel for ourselves or however down we are about today's game, we've got to leave it here."