Patriots: Defense & just enough offense help Pats keep playoff hopes alive

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FOXBOROUGH – Pats and Dolphins, playoff berth on the line in unseasonably warm weather.

It truly didn’t get much better than the scene at Gillette Stadium to open 2023 on New Year’s Day Sunday afternoon.

Thanks to a huge play from Kyle Dugger and just enough offensive output, the Pats opened the New Year by keeping playoff hopes alive with a 23-21 win over Miami.

Now at 8-8, the Patriots need to beat the Bills in Buffalo next weekend to get in. New England could still get in with a loss, but would need a bunch of help.

“The overall resiliency and determination that the team, as a group and the staff showed I thought was really, really good this week,” said Bill Belichick. “So, battled all the way through it. Some big plays in the game, like there always are. It was good to come out on the positive side of them today. We’ll see what happens next week. But Miami is kind of what we thought they were: explosive team. They certainly caused some problems. We were just able to make enough plays to win, so it’s good. It’s a good feeling. It’s been a while since we beat them, so it’s definitely good to finally get on the right side of that ledger.”

Locked in a 7-7 tie at the half, both teams traded punts to begin the third quarter. New England’s second punt of the frame – less than three minutes in – was a poor one and gave Miami the ball at the New England 41. Five plays later, Raheem Mostert hauled in a little two-yard flip from Tedy Bridgewater to put the Dolphins up 14-7.

New England put a little something together on its next drive for the first time since the opening possession of the game. Mac Jones (20-for-33, 203 yards, 2 TD) hit Tyquan Thornton (3 catches, 60 yards) for a 29 yard gain down to the Miami 36, but moments later on 3rd-and-7 Kendrick Bourne – who barely saw the field – had a false start, making it 3rd-and-11. A Hunter Henry grab gained a few yards back, but the Pats had to settle for a 49 yard Nick Folk field goal to cut it to 14-10.

Three plays later, the Patriots suddenly had a 16-14 lead when Kyle Dugger picked off Bridgewater and returned it 39 yards to the house, but Nick Folk missed the PAT to keep it a two-point game. The defensive score was Dugger’s third of the year, the first Patriot to do that since 1970. It was also a team-record seventh defensive TD on the year and it was the fourth straight game with a defensive score for New England, the first such occurrence since the 2002 Tampa defense did it with the likes of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch.

“I mean, it was a great play. A little bit like Marcus’ [Jones] play. It was a great run. The interception, it was a good play, a good catch and all that but he made a lot of yards on his own,” Belichick said of the pick-six. “Like I said, like Marcus did last week, breaking tackles there midfield or 40 yard line, whatever it was, cutting back. Yeah, we all know Kyle’s a very, very explosive, athletic player. He’s done a great job for us jamming receivers, making the run, tackling, making big plays.

“When he gets his hands on the ball, he’s a hard guy to get. Not many guys out there that are going to catch him from behind on offense, so if it was the Detroit scoop-and-score play, the interceptions here he’s had the last couple weeks, last few weeks, he’s really helped us. Big play with [DeAndre] Hopkins, knocking the ball off of him for the fumble in Arizona, that [Raekwon] McMillan got. He’s been involved in a lot of those big plays. That’s obviously really helped us.”

Moments later with Skylar Thompson in at QB for an injured Bridgewater (finger), Jonathan Jones came up with an impressive one-handed, toe-tap interception at the New England 37, but the Pats quickly had to punt. The Pats’ defense responded and forced one of its own, giving the ball back to the offense with just under 10 minutes remaining.

In perhaps his biggest spot as a Patriot, Jones led the team downfield on an 11-play, 89-yard march with some impressive throws. The drive ended with Jones hitting Meyers for a two-yard TD with 4:37 left to make it a 23-14 game. The Patriots’ defense forced a turnover on downs at the Miami 35 with 3:23 to go minutes later to all but ice the game.

Although, they did make it interesting after turning the ball over on downs instead of attempting a 47-yard field goal with Folk just in front of the two-minute warning. With 1:04 left, Thompson found tight end Mike Geisicki for a 4-yard TD to keep fans on edge with the score 23-21. Hunter Henry recovered the onside kick to seal the deal and Mac took two knees to officially end it.

“We felt prepared, like always. It comes down to the execution of the plays,” Mac said when asked about that massive ‘put away’ drive. “We’re going to have to do that again here you never know when, probably the next game. You never know when that opportunity comes. You got to be ready, have a plan, then obviously go out and execute it.”

After the defense forced a punt on the first drive of the game, New England’s offense started 2023 on its own 19. Thanks to a couple of defensive penalties on third down and a big throw down the sideline to Thornton, the Pats were in business inside the Dolphins’ 15. Looking at another third down, Jones hit Thornton for a 7-yard TD to cap the 10-play march that took 4:18 off the clock.

Miami’s second possession should have ended in a punt after the Dolphins decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 at their own 35 but had a false start. However, a Brendan Schooler running into the punter call gave Miami new life and they converted a snap later. The drive turned into a 13-play march spanning 75 yards and 7:20 and ended with a Tyreek Hill 2-yard TD run at the start of the second quarter, tying the game at 7-7.

The Pats moved down to the Miami 42 after a 29 yard dime from Jones to Hunter Henry on the team’s next possession, but a couple of sacks – including one from Springfield, MA native Christian Wilkins and one on a peculiar 3rd-and-1 play call from old friend Elandon Roberts – forced a punt. The Dolphins were forced to try a 51 yard field goal moments later and it was no good, handing the New England offense the ball back at the Patriots’ 41 with 6:21 left in the half. Unfortunately, as has been the case all year, the Pats immediately shot themselves in the foot. Trent Brown had a false start penalty on the first snap and the offense never recovered, quickly going three-and-out.

Right at the two-minute warning, Carl Davis and Deatrich Wise met at Bridgewater for a sack to set up 3rd-and-22 which eventually turned into a punt that pinned the Pats at their own two with 1:45 left in the half. New England chose to play it conservative – drawing plenty of boos – going hand off, dump off, incomplete downfield and hand off before heading to the locker room with the game still knotted at 7-7.

“We made some big plays in some big moments. That’s what the NFL is all about,” added Jones. “Obviously defense did great job of putting us in a good spot, special teams. Obviously, at the end of the game here, special teams came up huge with Hunter [Henry] getting the onside kick. Really proud of the guys for all the effort today.”

Now, it all comes down to Week 18. For as bad as its been at times this year, the fact the Patriots are even in this position with one game left is somewhat stunning. Buffalo is probably going to have to play its starters with the AFC’s only bye most likely on the line, which means it’s not just going to come easy for New England.

Nothing else has this season, so it’s only fitting.