Flawed Patriots Wisely Let Dolphins Self-Destruct To Close In on Playoff Berth

    The New England Patriots enter Week 18 very much alive in the playoff race after getting out of the way and letting the Miami Dolphins beat themselves Sunday.

    FOXBORO, Mass. — This isn’t a great New England Patriots team. It isn’t even a particularly good one. It’s certainly not a complete roster. The Patriots need wholesale changes on offense — probably starting with the guy calling the plays.

    But an enduring, generational strand of DNA from those Patriots’ glory years has survived significant personnel and coaching turnover — they are great at getting out of the way and letting less disciplined teams implode.

    That familiar script was followed yet again Sunday. The Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins 23-21 here Sunday because they allowed the Dolphins to beat themselves. As a result, the Patriots enter Week 18 with a very real chance to return to the postseason for the 19th time in the last 22 seasons.

    New England Patriots Turn Back Clock vs. Dolphins

    The Patriots entered Sunday’s affair under .500 while needing help and wins in their last two games to make the NFL playoffs. After taking care of business against a reeling Dolphins club, the landscape is much clearer.

    But any reasonable path to the playoffs still includes a win in Buffalo — against a team that has owned the Patriots as of late. The Bills have beaten the Pats the last three times they’ve faced by a combined 56 points.

    When they meet in Orchard Park, N.Y., next week for the 127th time in the rivalry’s 63-year history, much will be on the line. For the Patriots, it’ll be survival. For the Bills, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs are theirs with wins in their final two games.

    “We won there before,” Patriots pass rusher Matthew Judon said after the game on Sunday. “We can do it. It’s a good team. We know them inside and out. They know us inside and out. We just have to come out focused and execute.”

    In other words, do what they did Sunday against the Dolphins — except with even more efficiency on offense.

    Patriots Defense Shines in Win

    New England’s defense has done its part all year, and that continued Sunday even without key secondary contributors Marcus Jones (concussion) and Jalen Mills (groin).

    But they still had Kyle Dugger, and on this day, that was enough.

    Dugger’s pick-6 of Teddy Bridgewater late in the third quarter not only gave the Patriots a lead they wouldn’t relinquish but also gave the Patriots an insane seven defensive touchdowns on the season — including one in each of the last four games.

    “When I first came here, I was really fired up because I knew that we had such a great defense,” said Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, who put the game away with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jakobi Meyers with 4:37 left in regulation.

    “Last year and this year, throughout history. All those guys play hard. Really well-coached,” Jones continued. “We have great scheme. Just great players. Definitely want to be able to produce more on offense. It starts with me as the quarterback. I know we’ve been saying that a lot. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to keep trying to win games, play with each other, try to finish games strong, be able to score more points so they don’t have to do that part for us.”

    The Pats are now plus-7 in turnovers — the only reason they’re 8-8 instead of, say, 4-12. The Dolphins are now minus-7 — the biggest reason they’ve lost five straight.

    New England also benefited from another sloppy procedural game from the Dolphins. Miami committed nine more accepted penalties Sunday — giving them an egregious 106 for 834 yards on the season.

    The Patriots’ first touchdown drive was extended by two different Dolphins penalties on third downs. That helps explain how a team that managed merely 249 yards of offense and converted five of 13 third downs beat what, on paper, is a good Dolphins team.

    Patriots Enter Must-Win Game vs. Buffalo Bills in Week 18

    You don’t need any qualifiers about the Bills, meanwhile. They’re a good team — period. And a far more explosive one than a Miami club that was down to its No. 3 quarterback Sunday.

    But the Bills can get a bit reckless too, so there is a path for the Patriots to slay the AFC East’s new giants. Buffalo has turned the ball over and committed a bunch of dumb penalties this year, too. But the Bills are just so good, they can overcome it.

    “We’ll see what happens next week,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “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.”

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