Gillette Stadium – The Patriots live to play another week with a 23-21 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
With both teams playing short-handed, New England snapped a four-game losing streak against Miami to stay alive in the AFC playoff race, where a win next week in Buffalo clinches a playoff berth. Although you'd like to earn a spot in the playoffs by winning your way in, there are also scenarios where the Patriots could be the final Wild Card team with a loss in Week 18.
The New Year's Day contest tilted in the Patriots favor when the defense forced back-to-back interceptions, adding to their franchise record with their seventh defensive touchdown on a pick-six by safety Kyle Dugger. New England's defense grabbed the momentum, and in a moment of complementary football, the offense had an 89-yard TD drive to make it a two-score game.
Miami, who has now lost five straight and is on the brink of a total collapse, started the game with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater while ending Sunday's affair with third-stringer Skylar Thompson under center. Sure, it wasn't the full-strength Dolphins. But fourth-quarter performances in high-leverage situations have eluded this team all season. Plus, the Pats were also dealing with several injuries, especially at the cornerback position.
You'll take a win any way you can this time of year. However, the big-picture hasn't changed. Offensively, they're still inconsistent and sometimes non-competitive, while the defense has yet to play a complete game against an elite quarterback. We'll need to see that next week or, if they're able to find a way into the playoffs, on Wild Card weekend to change the perception of the 2022 Patriots. For now, it's nice to extend the season for another week.
Here are eight observations as the Patriots improve to 8-8 with a win over the Dolphins:
1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Kyle Dugger's Pick-Six Swings Momentum in Patriots Favor
The Patriots are on a historic pace with a franchise-record seventh and Dugger's third defensive touchdown. The Pats safety is the first Patriot to score a trio of defensive TDs in the Super Bowl era (since 1970).
In the play, the Pats show a post-safety pressure look before the ball is snapped with Dugger near the line of scrimmage in a blitz position. At the snap, Dugger falls into the deep hole in cover-two as the backend rotates into a split-safety zone. The coverage rotation and Dugger initially opening to the other side while dropping out fools Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who likely never saw Dugger cheat back over, and then it's all the Pats safety's athleticism in the open field.
New England's defense continues to capitalize on turnovers and make game-changing plays.
2. Patriots Offense Comes Up With Two Key Situational Touchdown Drives in Win
The offense still had long stretches where it doesn't resemble a well-oiled machine, and they'll need to be far more consistent to make some magic happen over the next, hopefully, few weeks.
Still, New England began the game with their second opening drive touchdown of the season and the 89-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter was exactly what the doctor ordered.
On the opening drive, the Pats beat the Dolphins in man coverage with big plays to Tyquan Thornton and Jakobi Meyers. They also beat man coverage on third down with actually good spacing. Progress! We'll also give some kudos to Matt Patricia. Yes, you read that correctly, and don't roll your eyes. He had some good calls in this one when it counted, including a key third-down call on the fourth-quarter drive.
In the play, Pats wide receiver Jakobi Meyers started in the backfield at a typical running back alignment. Meyers ran a wheel route against man coverage, and Mac put the ball on him for a completion.
"It was a really good play call. Just give them a little bit of a different presentation, and run one of our core plays. It was cool to be able to do that. He had a great route. Obviously had plenty of time to throw it and go through my read. That was a big conversion," quarterback Mac Jones told Patriots.com.
Miami's mid-game adjustment to zone coverage took time for the Pats to shift their approach in the chess match. New England likely game-planned for the Dolphins man and man-blitz schemes, so the zone uptick was a change-up. Ideally, the coaching staff would adjust faster in the middle quarters.
New England needs to string scoring drives together more consistently, but two touchdown drives were enough this week to win.
3. Patriots QB Mac Jones Starts Hot and Finishes Strong, But Middle Two Quarters Were Inconsistent
We'll take a closer look at the film before calling this game one way or another. However, Jones was shaky in the middle quarters and also felt stuck in the plan to face man coverage. Statistically, Mac's completion percentage over expected was in the red (-2.6).
Like the entire offense, Jones had his good moments, too. The best read he had in the game came on third down to Tyquan Thornton. Miami fell into a zone structure, with Mac initially looking toward the right side, which was covered. The Pats QB came off the initial read in the progression to Thornton, who was running the back side seam and found the rookie speedster for a big play.
The reason we highlighted that play is that it shows Mac reading a full-field progression on time, something he has taken criticism for this season. Jones's accuracy could have been better, but his decisions were solid on initial viewing.
4. Patriots Defense Uses a Zone-Heavy Game Plan With Four-Safety Package
With their secondary down multiple corners, the Patriots opted for a zone-heavy approach and often used a package with four safeties on the field. The primary defensive personnel was Jon Jones (CB), Myles Bryant (CB), Kyle Dugger (S/LB), Jabrill Peppers (S/LB), Devin McCourty (FS), and Adrian Phillips (S/LB) also rotated into the secondary.
The approach was driven by New England's injuries at corner, leading to newcomers such as Tae Hayes playing 24 snaps in the win. But it was also aimed to prevent big plays from Miami's explosive tandem of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
"They aren't going to sit there and do that (check it down) all day," Pats cornerback Jonathan Jones said. "Teams like that beat you with big plays. We felt like that was our best game plan."
New England's strategy gives the impression that the offense is carving up the defense with quick underneath throws against soft zone coverage. But the idea is to make offenses march down the field rather than get it all in one play. To that end, the Pats held Miami to 4-14 on third down while the Dolphins longest play from scrimmage was 25 yards, so mission accomplished.
The Patriots counted on the Dolphins backup quarterbacks failing to string long drives together, and they were right.
5. Pats Rookie WR Tyquan Thornton Flashes Big-Play Ability Late in the Season
It hasn't always been smooth for second-round pick Tyquan Thornton. There have been route-running issues, usage problems in terms of getting his speed in the open field, and a lack of production.
However, Thornton made an impact with three catches for 60 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. The Pats got Thornton into vertical foot races, with a fade from a condensed split hitting on the opening drive. Those alignments give Thornton optimal space to run into the sideline instead of pinning him to the boundary. New England must continue finding ways to get Thornton into space to use his game-breaking speed.
6. Don't Forget About Patriots DT Christian Barmore's Potential Impact
Unfortunately, it's been a lost season to a degree for the second-year defensive tackle. But Barmore has looked strong since returning from a six-week absence due to a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve, and he's starting to come alive here. Barmore registered a sack on a pocket-collapsing bull rush and had an excellent run stuff coming off an inside zone combination block. Add him to the list of players who can torment offensive lines in the Pats front seven.
7. Patriots Pass Protection Struggles vs. the Blitz, Needs to be Trusted More
The Patriots had a tough time with the Dolphins blitz package a week after the Bengals registered a sack and multiple QB pressures with free runners on blitzes. The third-and-one breakdown leading to an Elandon Roberts sack was a questionable play call, and defenses are all over the Pats wide receiver screens when they show pressure. We'd like to see the coaching staff have more faith in the protection to improve against the blitz. Get everyone pointed in the right direction, pick up the pressure, and have the quarterback stand in the pocket and make throws to beat the blitz. The issues on Sunday were more blocking technique and poor timing to dial-up play-action than assignment issues. That leads me to believe that this offense can handle throwing downfield to beat the blitz rather than screens.
8. Calling Punter Jake Bailey, Jake Bailey Please Return From Injured Reserve
Veteran punter Michael Palardy was fine for a few weeks with Bailey landing on injured reserve in late November, and Bailey wasn't punting the ball well either. But Palardy has struggled recently, leading to short fields for opposing offenses. Plus, short kickoffs are an issue, even though Nick Folk had two touchbacks this week. The Pats need every yard of field position they can get in Buffalo next week. If Bailey is ready to go, it will help the team.