FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s official: The Patriots will play for a spot in the NFL postseason next weekend in Buffalo.
New England defeated the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in a battle of injury-depleted AFC East rivals, winning 23-21 at Gillette Stadium.
A loss would have eliminated the Patriots from playoff contention. Instead, they remain alive for a wild-card berth entering their Week 18 rematch with the Bills.
Here are five at-the-whistle takeaways from Sunday’s result:
1. Playoff implications
Now sitting at 8-8, the Patriots can clinch the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC with a win next week at Highmark Stadium. That’s the simplest path.
New England also can get in with a loss in Buffalo, but that would require a number of other results involving fellow playoff hopefuls to break their way. The Patriots have lost three straight and five of their last six against the Bills, including a 24-10 defeat in Foxboro last month.
Stay tuned for a full playoff scenario breakdown this week once the Week 17 slate is complete.
2. Defense (again) is the best offense
Scoring points has been an issue for the Patriots’ offense all season. Fortunately for them, their defense has found the end zone at the highest rate in franchise history.
The Patriots took the lead late in the third quarter when safety Kyle Dugger undercut a Teddy Bridgewater pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown.
It was the Patriots’ seventh defensive touchdown of the season and their fourth consecutive game with one — both new franchise records. The last NFL team to score defensive TDs in four straight games was the Super Bowl-winning 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Dugger has personally provided three of those seven scores, the most by a Patriots defender in a season since 1970.
Dugger punctuated his pick-six by stiff-arming Bridgewater at the goal line. The powerful fend sent the Dolphins QB — who was starting in place of the injured Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) — into the sideline medical tent with a finger injury.
Seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson replaced Bridgewater and played the rest of the game. The Patriots’ wins this season have come against Mitch Trubisky, Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett, Zach Wilson (twice), Sam Ehlinger, Colt McCoy and now Bridgewater/Thompson.
2. Shorthanded cornerback group delivers
The Patriots carried a skeleton crew of corners into this game. With Jalen Mills, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones all unavailable due to injury and Shaun Wade a healthy inactive, New England’s only available players at the position were Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant and practice squad call-ups Tae Hayes and Quandre Mosely.
New England navigated this undesirable situation by shifting Bryant from his usual slot alignment to outside cornerback and making use of their deep stable of versatile safeties. On multiple Dolphins third downs, the Patriots sent out a dime package that featured Jones, Bryant and safeties Devin McCourty, Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers.
When the Patriots did insert a third cornerback, they typically bumped Bryant back into the slot and had Hayes — who just signed with the team on Tuesday — take his place outside. Hayes was in coverage on standout receiver Jaylen Waddle on one third-incompletion during the second quarter.
The matchup of Waddle and Tyreek Hill against New England’s depleted cornerback group should have favored Miami, but the Dolphins’ elite receiving duo combined for just seven catches for 107 yards.
Jones followed up Dugger’s pick-six with an acrobatic interception off a Hill drop on the ensuing drive. He did leave the game late with an unspecified injury, however, so his status will be worth monitoring as the Buffalo game approaches. It’s hard to imagine the Patriots having similar success against the high-powered Bills offense without a healthier collection of corners.
The Patriots also bottled up the Dolphins’ rushing attack, holding Miami to 3.2 yards per carry on 27 attempts. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore was a standout performer up front with a sack, four quarterback hits and several impressive plays in run defense.
3. Thornton sparks early, Meyers delivers late
After a two-game stretch in which he played 112 offensive snaps and caught just two passes, Tyquan Thornton helped energize the Patriots’ offense with a 24-yard over-the-shoulder catch on New England’s fifth offensive snap. Seven plays later, the rookie receiver hauled in his first touchdown pass since Week 6, scoring from 7 yards out on third-and-6.
The touchdown came on a well-designed play, with the Patriots motioning Thornton behind tight end Hunter Henry to give him a free release off the line and some automatic separation from cornerback Noah Igbinoghene.
Thornton later added a 29-yard reception on third-and-5 to give him a career-high 60 receiving yards on the day.
While the Patriots’ youngest receiver keyed their first touchdown drive, their longest-tenured wideout powered their second.
That didn’t come until the fourth quarter, after a stretch of seven stagnant possessions that featured just four total first downs. But leading 16-14 five minutes into the fourth quarter, Jones looked to Jakobi Meyers on three consecutive third downs and hit on all three.
Meyers caught a 25-yard pass on third-and-5, drew a pass interference penalty on third-and-5 and hauled in a leaping 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal. He suffered a shoulder injury on the touchdown catch, which put the Patriots up nine with 4:23 remaining.
Overall, this was yet another inconsistent performance by the Patriots’ offense. But they did not turn the ball over, and their 2-for-2 showing in the red zone was encouraging, as they entered the game ranked 30th in the NFL in red-zone conversion percentage.
Jones finished 20-for-33 for 203 yards and two touchdowns, with Thornton (3-60-1), Meyers (6-48-1) and tight end Hunter Henry (5-52-0) spearheading the Patriots’ passing attack
4. Depleted Dolphins
Tagovailoa wasn’t the only Miami starter who couldn’t suit up for this game. The Dolphins also were without left tackle Terron Armstead, edge rusher Bradley Chubb and cornerback Xavien Howard, among others. Armstead’s replacement, Kendall Lamm, then went down with an injury during the game.
The Patriots were missing some other key players, as well. On top of their absent cornerbacks, wide receiver DeVante Parker and tight end Jonnu Smith also sat out with concussions.
5. Special teams struggles
The Patriots entered the weekend ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA, and problems in the kicking game again hurt them on Sunday.
A running-into-the-punter penalty on Brenden Schooler extended a Dolphins touchdown drive, and Patriots punter Michael Palardy could not help New England in the field-position department. Three of Palardy’s punts traveled 38 or fewer yards and the other two were touchbacks.
Morstead, meanwhile, had a perfectly executed coffin-corner punt that pinned the Patriots at their own 2-yard line in the closing minutes of the first half. Punting has been a problem for New England all season, but Palardy has been especially shaky since taking over for an injured Jake Bailey in November. Bailey returned to practice two weeks ago but has yet to be activated off injured reserve.
The Patriots also lacked pop in the return game with dynamic rookie Marcus Jones sidelined with a concussion, and Nick Folk missed an extra point. Bryant totaled 10 yards on his two punt returns, and Pierre Strong was tackled at the 21-yard line on his lone kickoff return.
Henry did deliver a clutch play in the kicking game, however, recovering an onside kick with 1:03 remaining to seal the win.