FOXBORO, Mass. — Sometime late in the second quarter Sunday, or maybe it was early in the third, Gillette Stadium settled into a state of football stasis.
Two offenses played to stay on-schedule instead of striking fast. Two defenses played to protect their glaring holes at cornerback instead of attacking. The score was close, and the crowd quiet.
Then, the strongest winter force in New England, not a snowstorm, or a nor’easter, shattered it.
Trailing 14-10, the Patriots defense jumped Miami for a pick-six late in the third quarter. Kyle Dugger intercepted Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and weaved 39 yards, shaking the stadium as he fell across the goal line. Next, Jonathan Jones, the Pats’ only healthy outside corner on the active roster, intercepted Bridgewater’s replacement, Skylar Thompson, to kill another drive.
Soon enough, the Patriots offense caught up. Jakobi Meyers snatched a 1-yard touchdown pass at 4:37 left, needed insurance in a game that survived a late Miami score and kept the team’s playoff hopes alive.
The Patriots continued to march toward the AFC’s final wild-card berth with a 23-21 win over the Dolphins, their first in the division series since Sept. 2020. The Pats (8-8) will clinch a postseason spot if they win at Buffalo next weekend. Mac Jones went 20-of-33 passing for 203 yards, two touchdowns and zero picks, unbothered by Miami’s blitz pressure but undone by his offense’s still frequent breakdowns.
Dolphins wide receivers Tyreek Hill (55 yards) and Jaylen Waddle (52), the NFL’s most dangerous duo, were held to 107 total receiving despite occasionally facing defensive backs who made their Patriots debuts Sunday. Along with veterans Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant, the Patriots deployed practice-squad members Tae Hayes and Quandre Mosely at cornerback, and teamed them with the league’s deepest safety group.
Against that group, Bridgewater (12 of 19, 161 yards, TD, INT) and Thompson (12 of 21, 104 yards, TD, INT) went a combined 24 of 40 for 265 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Patriots offense kicked off the New Year with a touchdown drive, covering 67 yards and 10 plays with the help of a couple defensive penalties. Mac Jones repeatedly beat Miami’s blitz, first with a 24-yard sideline throw to Tyquan Thornton that survived a review. Seven plays later, Jones found Thornton for a 7-yard touchdown pass against another blitz midway through the first quarter.
After punting to start the game, the Dolphins looked ready to boom the ball away again on their next drive when Pats rookie special teamer Brenden Schooler ran into punter Thomas Morstead on fourth-and-6. Miami seized its second chance, following running back Raheem Mostert to a fourth-and-1 conversion and a combination of short runs and passes all the way to the doorstep of the end zone. Then Hill took care of the rest, grabbing a backwards pass flipped to him in the left flat for a 2-yard rushing touchdown.
The 7-7 tie held through halftime, thanks to a missed Dolphins field goal and trade of punts. Miami managed the only touchdown of the third quarter, another 2-yard flip that found Mostert for a 14-7 lead. Patriots kicker Nick Folk hit a 49-yarder on the next possession, and a minute later Dugger raced away with the lead and soon enough, the game.
Here were the best and worst Patriot performances from Sunday:
— S Kyle Dugger: His pick-six completely changed the course of Sunday’s game and clinched a fourth straight week with a Patriots defensive touchdown.
— CB Jonathan Jones: One interception, two pass breakups and four tackles. Jones was tremendous.
— WR Jakobi Meyers: After drawing double teams early on, Meyers unlocked the offense late with a 25-yard catch that carried the Patriots into Miami territory and his 1-yard touchdown.
— Pass protection: The Dolphins racked up three sacks and two other QB hits.