FOXBORO, Mass. - Sometimes when a season ends badly in New England, as another one did for the Dolphins on Sunday, the idea is that's how far they stand from relevance. Not this time.
"We wrapped up the division a month ago,'' New England coach Bill Belichick said.
That's really how bad it is: Belichick coming as close to trash-talking as his monotone ever allows. So the gap is wider, the problem bigger, the issue deeper than the Patriots' 28-0 win stated.
"It was pretty cold and pretty windy – we handled it better than the Dolphins,'' Tom Brady said.
So it was Brady, too, trash-talking the Dolphins. And the only hint the Dolphins are any closer than two or six or 10 years ago when other seasons ended in the silence of a Gillette Stadium locker room stood 20 feet apart in this one.
There, on one side, quarterback Ryan Tannehill shook the cold out of his system and checked for loose body parts after being sacked seven times. He's hope. He's tomorrow. He's the one chance out of the wilderness, depending on who he becomes next.
There, on the other side, stood General Manager Jeff Ireland with anger on his face and $50 million plus five early draft picks in his pocket. His five years raise more questions than answers. This is his winter to shine, if he's ever going to do so.
You can't talk about Tannehill next year without talking of Ireland next month. Belichick told you that in, again, what passes as analystical trash-talk by his standards.
He was asked the Patriots' seven sacks that, at one point, left Tannehill on the ground being checked by trainers.
"Guys were covered, the quarterback had to hold the ball,'' Belichick said. "(The coverage) helped the pass rush. Guys rushed well, guys covered well. When the receivers are open, it doesn't matter what your pass rush is.
"If you make the quarterback hold the ball, that helps the pass rush."
Tannehill had to hold the ball with no one open. And hold it. At some point, he'll learn better to throw away the ball, just as at some point he'll have to improve his accuracy to take the next, progressive step.
But when his only quality receiver was Brian Hartline, it underlines the point Belichick was making. When no one's open, the quarterback's in trouble. And taking the fall, as Tannehill surely will in the court of public opinion.
He had 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this year? Chad Henne had 12 and 14, respectively, in his first year as a starter in 2009. That's the centerpiece of the argument against Tannehill, if you want to make it.
He needs to work on his accuracy, as his deep miss to Reggie Bush on Sunday again showed. But he also needs a severely upgraded receiving corps, as Armon Binns' drop of a touchdown and a first down showed.
"I've got to get better,'' Tannehill said. "I've got a lot of work to do."
Talk to the people running the Dolphins and the hope for Tannehill stems from three things: 1) He's smart enough to read defenses well and always has the offense in the right play; 2) He's hasn't been rattled through a season with little help; and 3) Projecting what he'll be with help.
"It was a long season,'' Tannehill said. "I learned a lot, and I have a lot of work to do."
How far has he come? At the start of the season, he couldn't name the three other AFC East teams. Now he's played in each of their stadiums. He played in the coldest game of his life Sunday.
"I've never experienced confetti snow,'' he said of the Patriots' fans throwing snow in the air to celebrate scores.
He took his back from his locker and walked out the locker-room door into the off-season. When he's here again, he better have more help around him. That's Ireland's job.
The Dolphins were 2-5 against playoff teams this year. They lost twice to New England. They're no closer than they were a year ago, or two years, or 10 years. Tannehill's development and Ireland's chips are the only chance to get there now.