Patriots Report Card: Defense passes with flying colors vs. Dolphins

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Perry's Report Card: Defense passes with flying colors vs. Dolphins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO -- David Andrews ambled to the podium and smiled behind the microphone. "We're still alive," he said.

By beating the Dolphins on Sunday, 23-21, the Patriots maintain control of their own destiny. One more win in Buffalo next week, and they're in the playoffs. Even if they lose to Buffalo, with a little help from the Jaguars, Jets and others... they could actually make the postseason with a losing record.

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They had to hold up their end of things by taking care of business against a banged-up Dolphins team that is also fighting for its playoff life but spiraling. And they did.

"This is a resilient group," Matthew Slater said. "I’ve been a part of a lot of teams here. I cannot tell you how proud I am to be a part of this crew. We have been dragged through the mud, kicked, counted out, and we just keep fighting. What more can you ask for?

"As a leader of this team that is all you ask for, is guys that come in and compete every week regardless of the circumstances, regardless of what’s being said about them. That’s the type of football team we have."

How did they get here? Let's get to the grades...

Quarterback: B-

Mac Jones didn't play his best game, he acknowledged afterward.

"I think it was a great day here just fighting through a lot of different things on offense," he said. "I didn't play very well in the middle of the game. My voice is kind of going, sorry. I didn't play as good as I wanted to in the middle of the game. I thought our guys just kept fighting. We made some big plays in some big moments. That's what the NFL is all about."

The Patriots went six of seven drives -- starting with their second series of the game -- during which they were held scoreless. In that span, Jones went 6-for-14 for 47 yards and took two sacks. Ugly.

But late in the third quarter, he led a drive that saw him go 5-for-6 for 56 yards that led to a field goal. And his fourth-quarter drive that traveled 89 yards and resulted in a touchdown was one of the team's best of the season. He went 5-for-7 for 55 yards and a touchdown -- with a 23-yard pass-interference penalty mixed in -- and hit on two key throws to Jakobi Meyers to keep the thing alive.

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Meyers called Jones' third-and-five wheel-route throw up the seam a "dime." And the pair later connected for a one-yard score when the Dolphins left Meyers alone after an offensive shift. The two made eye contact, Jones rushed the snap to get his most trusted target the football ASAP, and that was that.

Jones skipped a throw to the flat. He sailed a pair of fades too long. He took three sacks in all. But he didn't throw a pick -- he has just two since Week 8, second-fewest among qualifying quarterbacks (Detroit's Jared Goff has only one) -- and he had two spot-on throws to Tyquan Thornton on the game's opening drive that led to six points: a 24-yard shot along the sideline and a quick-out that resulted in a score.

Those positive plays, and the dearth of back-breaking negatives, have his grade here.

Running back: C+

The running game wasn't a big part of the plan for the Patriots in this one, as Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris combined for 17 carries and 74 yards. Stevenson picked up 42 yards on eight attempts, with 18 of his yards coming on a nifty second-and-19 run up the gut.

Stevenson did have a drop, though, and he whiffed on a blitzing linebacker during a play-action attempt. It's unclear how the Patriots would coach that, but oftentimes in the NFL you'll see heads-up backs bypass carrying out a play-fake in order to take care of the priority on the play, which is to protect the quarterback.

Wide receiver: B-

Tyquan Thornton came through with three grabs for 60 yards, including the first touchdown of the game, showing off a dynamic skill set and sure hands consistently for the first time since a two-touchdown game in Cleveland in Week 6. His 24-yard grab on the game's opening drive was an eye-opener as he got both feet in bounds and lunged for the pass before sailing into the Miami bench area. He also caught a seam pass that was deftly placed away from an oncoming safety by Jones, saving the slight rookie receiver a massive collision.

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Meyers was once again Mr. Reliable with 48 yards and a score on six catches. This grade can't get any higher than this, though, as Nelson Agholor was held catchless despite starting the game over Kendrick Bourne. And when Bourne got in, he did very little, losing a block on a receiver screen that was blown up, and later committing a false-start penalty on third down that made a tough situation (third and six) even worse. The Patriots picked up six yards on the next play and had to settle for a field goal.

Tight end: B+

Hunter Henry ended up with five grabs for 52 yards, playing through a knee injury that robbed him of most of last week's loss to the Bengals. Extra credit there. He also snagged a late onside-kick attempt by the Dolphins to secure the win. That bumps this grade a tad as well. Henry was also on the receiving end of one of the best throws of the day from Jones -- which didn't even get a mention above as it was part of a drive that ended with a punt -- when he hit a post-corner route that almost made a defender fall down. Jones threw to a spot and it landed in Henry's breadbasket for 29 yards.

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"Just a great all-around, savvy football player," Jones said of Henry. "He has a great understanding of not only the tight end position, but for example [the onside recovery], staying calm, fielding the ball. Not the easiest thing to do when the game is on the line. That's just who Hunter is. He's a laid-back, easy-going guy. I love Hunter. Excited to grow with him throughout the years, all that. He did a great job."

Henry was busy, as the Patriots primarily went with 11-personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one back) groupings that included Henry. Matt Sokol was active in place of Jonnu Smith (concussion) but saw limited action offensively.

Offensive line: C

Mac Jones had the ball out of his hands very quickly on Sunday, recording the quickest time to throw average in the NFL for Week 17 going into Sunday Night Football, according to Next Gen Stats (2.35 seconds). He still took three sacks. (Though one of them came on fourth down in the four quarter and seemed like an "if it's not there, hit the deck" situation for Jones.)

The line allowed immediate pressure on a second-and-long throw in the second quarter that led to a throwaway. Trent Brown picked up a first-down false-start penalty, and the team had 10 runs that went for three yards or fewer.

Special teams: D

The punt team is having issues with Michael Palardy doing the kicking. Last week he simply didn't raise his leg to blast one against the Bengals. This week the problems were more subtle, as he punted five times yet couldn't plop one inside the Miami 20-yard line. He hit two into the end zone for touchbacks, and he had plus-50 (on New England's side of the field) punts of 38, 37 and 34 yards.

The punt-return team had its own problems, with rookie Brenden Schooler picking up a running into the punter penalty that helped extend a Dolphins touchdown drive. Nick Folk made a 49-yard field goal, but he missed one of his three extra points. And there was nothing doing in the return game for Bill Belichick's club.

Defensive line: A

Another bang-up job for this unit. They're dominating opposing running games right now. For another week, they held the other side to less than 4.0 yards per carry (3.2 total). And if you were to wipe away scrambles by Teddy Bridgewater (six yards) and Skylar Thompson (four yards), that number actually sits at 3.0. But beyond what they did in the running game, it was their work against the pass that bumped this grade up to high honors.

Christian Barmore was a force, logging a sack and three more quarterback hits. He also helped cave in the Miami line to help Carl Davis and Deatrich Wise share a sack. Now that he's back from the knee injury that took him off the field for the middle portion of the season, he looks spry.

Barmore, Patriots troll Jaylen Waddle with sack celebration

"Barmore did a great job today," Wise said. "He made some great, grown-man plays, throwing guys on the ground, making big plays... Even doing the waddle (Miami receiver Jaylen Waddle's touchdown dance). That was fantastic. That looked really good."

Linebacker: C+

Ja'Whaun Bentley continues to be a tackle hound, leading the team with nine, including blowing up a Miami run and a screen pass. Jahlani Tavai wasn't far behind with six tackles, and Raekwon McMillan had a run-stuff of his own.

There were a few things working against this group, though. While Josh Uche did record a quarterback hit, he was also flagged for a neutral-zone infraction, and he went without a sack against a banged-up line. Matthew Judon also couldn't get his hands on Dolphins quarterbacks, and he had just one tackle in the box score. Bentley, meanwhile, had a roughing-the-passer penalty that went for 15 yards.

Secondary: A-

"I think you're going to have to write Kyle a blank check, that's how good he is right there," Judon said after the game. He was, of course, referring to Kyle Dugger, who picked up his third touchdown of the season on a pick-six of Teddy Bridgewater to give the Patriots a third-quarter lead, 16-14.

“Just cover-two dropping as the middle player," Dugger said. "Got some odd drops, saw my threat was eliminated, so I was able to get my eyes back to the quarterback and get around to the backside vertical. Once I got my hands on the ball, I knew I needed to score. It helped the team greatly. That was the goal."

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Dugger led a group of four safeties -- along with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers -- that helped make up for an injured cornerback room that had only Jonathan Jones and Myles Bryant as its two healthy-enough-to-play regulars. Jones was particularly effective, helping hold Tyreek Hill to just 55 yards receiving, also recording a pick of his own and a pass breakup. Peppers should've had a forced fumble, but it was blown dead due to forward progress (probably incorrectly).

The only blemishes here were missed tackles on a long catch-and-run for 35 yards by Raheem Mostert, and McCourty's dropped interception deep down the field. "Excuse my language," McCourty said. "That was just a [expletive] play."