Patriots vs. Dolphins takeaways: Defense keeps Pats' playoff hopes alive in 23-21 win

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Patriots-Dolphins takeaways: Defense remains the Pats' saving grace originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The New England Patriots live to fight another day.

Needing a win to keep their postseason hopes alive, the Patriots scored 16 unanswered points against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday to rally to a 23-21 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The win moves the Patriots to 8-8 on the season and vaults them to the No. 7 seed in the AFC ahead of their regular-season finale against the Bills in Buffalo next Sunday. If they beat the Bills, they'll automatically qualify for the postseason, and they can still make the playoffs with a loss and some help.

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But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's break down how New England avenged their Week 1 defeat to the Miami Dolphins, who are now 8-8 after their fifth straight loss.

Defense is the Patriots' best offense

Who needs a competent offense when you have a scoring machine on defense?

Patriots safety Kyle Dugger changed the complexion of Sunday's game late in the third quarter when he intercepted Teddy Bridgewater and rumbled 39 yards for a touchdown to put the Patriots ahead 16-14.

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The pick-six was Dugger's third of the season and his second in the last three weeks. He's the only player in the NFL with three defensive touchdowns this season, while the Patriots became the first team since the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to score a defensive TD in four consecutive games.

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Dugger's pick was a massive play for the Patriots, who had scored just three points since their opening drive and again needed a spark from their defense to get back into the game.

New England now leads the NFL with seven defensive touchdowns and 18 interceptions after recording two picks Sunday. If you're wondering how the Patriots still have a shot at the playoffs despite having one of the league's worst offenses, just look to the other side of the ball.

Patriots' offense opens it up, with mixed results

Our Phil Perry suggested New England's offense be more aggressive Sunday, and that appeared to be the team's strategy.

Mac Jones completed multiple passes of 20-plus yards in the first half, including a 24-yard deep ball to rookie Tyquan Thornton on the Patriots' opening drive.

Jones hit Thornton again on a 7-yard touchdown strike to cap off that drive, a 10-play, 81-yard jaunt that was a pleasant departure from the conservative attack we've seen in the second half of the season.

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That's the good news. The bad news is the Patriots didn't score again until a Nick Folk field goal late in the third quarter.

While Jones had success targeting Thornton -- three catches for 60 yards and a score -- the offense otherwise struggled to move the ball consistently. The running game was a relative nonfactor for the second straight week, with Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris combining for just 74 yards rushing after the Patriots totaled 61 ground yards against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16.

The Patriots had one more offensive burst in them early in the fourth quarter, though. Jones found Jakobi Meyers on a 25-yard gain, then drew a 22-yard pass interference penalty on a deep ball intended for Meyers that set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to the veteran wideout.

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Two touchdown drives of 80-plus yards is certainly progress for this offense, and Jones' stat line -- 20 of 33 for 203 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions -- is respectable. But it's still hard to imagine them keeping pace with Josh Allen and the Bills unless they make more significant improvements.

New England's patchwork secondary holds up

The Patriots entered Sunday without three starting-caliber cornerbacks in Jalen Mills, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones. The last time they were this thin in the secondary, the results were disastrous.

New England's back line held strong against Miami's explosive wide receivers, however. Bridgewater didn't complete a pass longer than 25 yards before suffering a hand injury on Dugger's interception, while Jonathan Jones took advantage of a poor pass by third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson to record a key fourth-quarter pick.

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Bridgewater and Thompson aren't elite QBs by any means, but the Patriots' defensive backs still deserve plenty of credit for neutralizing Tyreek Hill (four catches for 55 yards) and Jaylen Waddle (three for 52) while preventing the big play.