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The New England Patriots Refuse to Quit

It's been a rough, and at some points infuriating season, but this Patriot team's unwillingness to give in has them in the playoff hunt going into the final week of the regular season. If there are two things you can't criticize this team for, it is their compete level and grit, and they showed a ton of it on Sunday, especially on defense. Mac Jones as well as Matt Patricia's play calling left a ton to be desired beyond the first offensive drive of the day, but the Patriots' defense continues to be one of the best in the sport.

The Dolphins came into this matchup shorthanded themselves, but the Patriots' secondary was decimated both going into this week and at the end of the game. Without Jalen Mills, Shaun Wade (healthy scratch), along with Marcus and Jack Jones, New England also lost Jonathan Jones late as well. Even with Teddy Bridgewater and Skyler Thompson under center, they were able to successfully contain Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, as well as make the Dolphins running attack a non-factor nearly all day long.

Bill Belichick sang his team's praises after this victory and rightfully so, saying that he was proud of how they competed all week after back-to-back tough outings. Belichick was also quick to praise the cornerbacks, as well as Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater, both of whom likely played their final game in Foxborough. If that is the case, it's nice to see them go out with a big-time division win, snapping a three-game losing streak against Miami.

A New Franchise Record

You may haven't noticed, but the Patriots simply keep scoring touchdowns on defense. So much so that they have now seven on the season, as well as defensive scores in four consecutive games, both now standing as franchise records. Additionally, these seven defensive scores mark the first time a team has hit that benchmark since the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You may have heard of them, pretty solid group.

Of the seven touchdowns defensively, three of them have been scored by Kyle Dugger. A scoop and score against the Detroit Lions, and Pick-6s against the Las Vegas Raiders and now the Dolphins. No NFL defender this year has as many or more scores, and no Patriot has done this since 1970, as in 53 years ago. Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy pointed this out, but Dugger in his time at Lenior-Rhyne picked up five career punt returns. Based on his return on Sunday, you could see why. Dugger displayed some good agility and vision seeing blocks developing in front of him. His stiff arm on Teddy Bridgewater was vicious to boot. Matt Judon mentioned that the Patriots are going to have to "write Kyle a blank check", and that might just happen soon then you may think. Next season is the final year of his rookie contract.

Feed Thornton

I've been clamoring for a while now for Tyquan Thornton to become one of the focal points of this Patriots offense, and Sunday was a great step in the right direction. His seven targets trailed only Jakobi Meyers on the day, but his 60 yards led the team. Two of his grabs were a pair of highlight real deep balls, firstly down the Dolphins' sideline for 24 yards, using every bit of his 33-inch arms to get a pass that was sailed by just a little bit. More impressive than the catch was Thornton's ability to keep his left foot down as he secured the catch. Had he not done so, it would have been a clear-as-day incompletion.

Thornton then ended the drive with a touchdown, on what was stunningly a good play design by Matt Patricia. Hunter Henry, lined up with Thornton, was used as a moving screen, drawing two defenders to him which left Thornton wide open at the boundary for an opening drive score. Later in the game on a 3rd&5, Mac Jones found Thornton again for a huge 29-yard pickup. McCorkle saw Thornton go virtually uncovered up the seem with just Jevon Holland deep, and nearly sailed the ball. Luckily, Thornton is a freak athlete and went full extension going backward for the grab.

It's also worth noting that Thornton had a prime opportunity for a second touchdown, but lost track of where he was in the back of the endzone on a bobbled pass. Not to mention the fact he was left completely uncovered on the goalline with four minutes left and the Patriots burned a timeout, but it didn't look like Mac saw him. Luckily the same thing happened with Jakobi Meyers right after, securing the putaway score, although Meyers seemingly was hurt on the play.

Postgame, Thornton received some well-earned praise as well. "He certainly has helped us. It's good to have him...He's an explosive player that can attack the vertical part of the defense, and he's fast with run-after-catch opportunities...Mac likes to throw to him" said Bill Belichick. Michael McCorkle Jones followed up by praising his rookie teammate's work ethic and temperament. Safe to say he has some fans in the building.

Run Game Erasure

The Dolphins run game in two tilts with the Patriots was put on a milk carton and was a huge reason why they couldn't get much going Sunday. Between Weeks 1 and 17, the Dolphins ran the ball 50 times for just 151 yards and one touchdown, a Tyreek Hill touch pass. Also worth noting is that no Miami player ran for more than 11 yards on a single play, and the Patriots were able to hold the Dolphins to 3.02 yards per carry and 75.5 yards per game. Everyone else in 15 total games has given up 4.50 yards per carry and 91.5 yards a game.

Keep in mind as well, the Dolphins' rushing attack was dynamite just a few weeks ago in Buffalo. Raheem Mostert went nuclear with 136 yards on only 17 carries. Salvon Ahmed wasn't too bad himself, putting up 43 yards on a half dozen handoffs. The big guys up front did a stellar job in this one, but Ja'Whaun Bentley, and more so Jabrill Peppers, were big-time. Peppers completely popped Raheem Mostert on the opening drive, forcing a clear fumble, but the play was ruled dead due to forward progress. The only problem was that Mostert was nowhere close to establishing forward progress. Luckily the Patriots' defense got off the field quickly there, but that was an extremely bad miss by Brad Allen's crew.

Going Out on Top

If for nothing else, Sunday's win was good just to see Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater (likely) end their Patriots careers with one last win in Foxborough. I'd imagine McCourty would want that dropped pop-fly interception back, but luckily that didn't come back to haunt him or the team. With that said, I think Bill Belichick, Mac Jones, and Jakobi Meyers summed things up nicely talking about the two all-time Patriots. Whatever's next, thanks for the memories.

Up Next: Win and You're In

The good news for New England is that their path into the postseason is now in their control, and relatively simple. Win in Buffalo and they are the AFC 7-Seed by default. Luckily, they have a second way to get in as well should they fall short in Western New York. That would require losses by the Dolphins and Titans, as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now here's the bad news, should the Patriots get into the playoffs, they are 100 percent guaranteed to go on the road to play one of the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, or Buffalo Bills. Not what you would call ideal, especially considering in the near-impossible event the Patriots make the AFC Championship, they would likely have to play all three of them in some order.

On the other end of the spectrum, what is the highest possible first-round pick the Patriots can get should they miss the postseason? Before the Steeler-Ravens Sunday Night Matchup, the Patriots had the 20th overall selection. That could be as high as the 14th should things fall into place next weekend. Not a bad spot considering the fact that the Patriots should have an abundance of third and fourth-round picks going into this April.

Final Score: New England Patriots 23, Miami Dolphins 21

Gaffney's Three Stars:

1st Star – Kyle Dugger (Pick-6)

2nd Star – Christian Barmore (1 Sack)

3rd Star – Jonathan Jones (1 INT)

Update - Tuesday AM

As many of you probably know by now, last night's Bills game was suspended due to a horrifying incident with Bills Safety Damar Hamlin. We now know via the team that he suffered a cardiac arrest on the field, and needed CPR and AED. Hamlin's heartbeat was then restarted on the field before being taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, in what was over a 20-minute process.

The scene of both the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals just trying to console one another, and the scene of the entire Bills team praying as the ambulance left the field was soul-chilling. I've seen some scary injuries before, but the body language and emotions of Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and countless others told the entire story. Anything short of suspending that game would have been a gross showing by the NFL no matter how you want to look at it. How was anyone supposed to play another 50 minutes of football after that?

In light of this horrifying incident, there is some good news. The sports community as a whole has found its way to Damar Hamlin's GoFundMe, a toy drive fund for his hometown of McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. Last night that GoFundMe was at over 70 thousand dollars. By the time I woke up today, that number was passed three million dollars. If you would like to make a donation, the link to Hamlin's GoFundMe is here. Just hoping for nothing but the best for Hamlin and his family at this point, and with that, I'll leave you with ESPN's gold standard in Scott Van Pelt, along with the great Ryan Clark.

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