Patriots defense slows Dolphins, keeps New England playoff chances alive

New England Patriots safety Kyle Dugger put an exclamation point on his sensational season with a pick-six in Sunday’s 23-21 win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 17.

Dugger’s touchdown helped the Patriots keep their playoff hopes alive. New England would have been knocked out of the competition with a loss. Instead, the Patriots’ win over the Dolphins sets New England up for a win-win game against the Bills in Buffalo in Week 18. The Bills, meanwhile, will be in contention for the No. 1 seed. (and a first – round goodbye). It should be an extremely tough game for New England.

But before looking to the future, New England will enjoy their victory over the Dolphins. And in the third quarter, Dugger scored his third touchdown of the season, the most by a Patriots defenseman since 1970. He also scored the franchise-record seventh defense touchdown of the year.

If teams could make the playoffs on defense alone, the Patriots could be Super Bowl favorites. They limited the Dolphins, who started Teddy Bridgewater in place of Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) – only to lose Bridgewater to a finger injury in the fourth quarter.

Shortly after knocking out Bridgewater for the touchdown, New England intercepted third stringer Skylar Thompson. Cornerback Jon Jones recorded the Patriots’ second interception on an angled pass – a ball that bounced off the hands of Tyreek Hill. The cornerback tapped his foot along the sideline and secured another decisive play for the defense. For Hill, it was more or less the same on a quiet day. He finished with four catches for 55 yards. And Jaylen Waddle didn’t do much better, with three catches for 52 yards.

It was actually running back Raheem Mostert who led the Dolphins passing offense: eight catches for 62 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown

If there was a clear way for the Dolphins to beat the Patriots, it seemed to be through Hill and Waddle, who had favorable matchups against Jones and Myles Bryant after three of the team’s top four cornerbacks were ruled out. before the game due to injury (Jalen Mills, Jack Jones, Marcus Jones).

But as good as the Patriots’ defense was, their offense did what they’ve struggled to do all season. They actually closed the door on Miami.

Late in the fourth quarter, New England took a nine-point lead thanks to a hugely impressive drive from quarterback Mac Jones. Jones completed 5 of 7 passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. He also added an assist for receiver Jakobi Meyers who drew a 22-yard defensive pass interference penalty. This set up a smart beep at the line of scrimmage at the 1-yard line when Jones identified poor cover on Meyers. This led to an easy touchdown.

Of course, a practice later, they could have ended the game completely – and they suffered a 4 and an out. It was not perfect free football. But it was better than what we saw from New England.

That fourth-quarter touchdown seemed like a huge step forward for the Patriots, whose offense had been moving in mud (metaphorically speaking) the entire game — and, frankly, the entire season.

In the first half we saw a lot of what we expect from this unit. There was, for example, a third-and-12 that felt like it said all that needed to be said about the Patriots’ offensive shortcomings throughout the season. Three of the Patriots’ four receivers went straight downfield, with only Tyquan Thornton, the fourth option, stopping just short of the front line. It wasn’t an impressive game design. Jones decided not to push the ball down – he went conservative and checked on Rhamondre Stevenson. But even then, Jones missed his running back for an incompleteness. No gain. Punt.

An unimaginative play call. A conservative decision. And poor execution.

But maybe New England found something late in the game.

Don’t go crazy thinking the season is saved. The Patriots will struggle to beat the Bills. And Buffalo’s defense is an entirely different caliber compared to Miami’s unit, which has struggled all year and was without top cornerback Xavien Howard and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb. New England will have their hands full with Gregory Rousseau, Ed Oliver, Matt Milano and Co.

But the Patriots hold on. And New England will be relevant for Week 18.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as an AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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