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New England Patriots control playoff fate after defeating Dolphins

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Gillette Stadium was quiet Sunday afternoon, which is an apt reflection of what this Patriots season has been like. Nobody expected the sort of dominance the Patriots had enjoyed for nearly two decades with Tom Brady after Brady left. But irrelevance? Unimportance? That is what the Patriots were sliding toward Sunday, their offense stuck in the mire again, everyone waiting, hoping for something to save the season from termination by the Miami Dolphins. 

There will be plenty of time -- months of the offseason, actually -- to lament that this style of football is simply not sustainable, that the Patriots can't wait around for the defense to keep them alive every week while the offense stumbles into a touchdown or two. Except that the defense kept them alive again, this time with a 39-yard pick-six by Kyle Dugger late in the third quarter that ignited the crowd and the comeback in a 23-21 victory over the Dolphins. The Patriots now control their postseason fate -- no matter what else happens, if they can beat the Bills in Buffalo next week, they are in. 

That, of course, is a very tall order. Then again, so is scoring seven defensive touchdowns in a season, and doing it four games in a row, which is what the Patriots have done this season. Safety Devin McCourty said the defense talked on Saturday night about needing to score. That sounded like an unintentional admission that the offense needs a boost. Those touchdowns have helped get the Patriots to 8-8, and they have masked an offense that, incredibly, has scored more than two offensive touchdowns in just two games this season. Whenever this ends, the decision about who will lead the offense next season will loom large. But for now, the offense is doing just enough -- on Sunday, it was an 11-play, 89-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown drive that culminated with Jakobi Meyers finding himself uncovered and waving his hands frantically to call for the ball pre-snap before making the 1-yard TD grab.

The touchdowns have rarely come that easily for the Patriots, but they have also rarely been as statement-making as that one, because it finally complemented all the defense had done.

"When I first came here, I was really fired up because I knew we had such a great defense," said quarterback Mac Jones, who went 20-of-33 for 203 yards and two touchdowns. "Definitely want to be able to produce more on offense. 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."

That will probably have to wait for next season, and whatever offensive retooling Bill Belichick undertakes. But for now, this is a defensive-led team in the classic Belichick mold. Its injury-decimated secondary held the NFL's most explosive receiver duo to nearly nothing -- just 55 receiving yards for Tyreek Hill and 52 for Jaylen Waddle, their lowest combined output since Week 5. The absence of Tua Tagovailoa surely had plenty to do with the relative struggle of the passing game, and the offense sputtered further when starter Teddy Bridgewater hurt a finger on his throwing hand and was replaced by Skylar Thompson.

Even then, the Dolphins drove for a late touchdown and the Patriots needed Hunter Henry to recover an onside kick to secure the win. By then, the Gillette Stadium crowd was back to its more familiar roar.

"Just finding ways to win," McCourty said. "We don't know what it's going to be, but finding a way to win the game. Whatever it is, it's that time of year, we got to figure it out. I don't know what game I said it after or before, but I don't think we have the men in that locker room that have the character to quit."

This season has been an undeniable slog for the Patriots, and in the last month, they had lost four of their last five -- including back-to back-losses to the Raiders and Bengals that had put their season on the brink. Even a late charge into the playoffs can not completely subdue the questions about why Belichick chose to entrust Jones' development and this offense to a former defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia. That has, in turn, given rise to questions about whether Jones is even the quarterback of the Patriots' future.

For those looking for symmetry, just a few moments before the Patriots secured their victory, Brady wrapped up another division title in Tampa, albeit one that came after an unusually messy season for him. The shadow he casts in New England remains long. By this time with Brady, the Patriots were usually worrying only about home-field advantage. That seems like a long time ago.

In the post-Brady age, though, the Patriots may be discovering something different about themselves. The dominance is over, but there is a thrill to discovering resiliency. The Patriots had that Sunday. It might still be an upset if they make the playoffs next week, but these are the Patriots for now, an imperfect team that now knows how the rest of the league lived in its wake. It's a struggle, and it might be disappointing. And it could still be surprising.

"If you've ever had a chance to play this game, you know it's like the game of life, right?" center David Andrews said. "You're going to get knocked down, you're going to get picked back up. You've got to keep pushing. It teaches you a lot about yourself and your teammates."

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