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Instant analysis from Patriots’ 23-21 win over Dolphins

Observations from New Year’s Day’s AFC East encounter at Gillette Stadium.

January began between the same AFC East opponents as September did.

But the result would be different Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots defeated the Miami Dolphins 23-21 to remain in playoff contention with one week remaining.

Here’s a glance back on New Year’s Day’s 1 p.m. ET kickoff as head coach Bill Belichick’s side moves toward the Buffalo Bills at 8-8.

Bridgewater unable to finish first career start against Patriots

Miami’s offense opened Sunday with a first down, a fumble negated by forward progress and a punt. A false start on fourth-and-1 as well a penalty for running into the kicker followed before the chains were moved. It was part of a possession that stretched more than seven minutes into the second quarter and into the end zone.

With Tua Tagovailoa returning to the NFL’s concussion protocol, the Dolphins turned the calendar to 2023 with Teddy Bridgewater under center. In his first career start against the Patriots, the veteran quarterback completed 12-of-19 passes for 161 yards with a touchdown to running back Raheem Mostert. But an interception taken back for points after intermission brought a finger injury. Seventh-round pick Skyler Thompson stepped on and threw a pick as well as a touchdown to tight end Mike Gesicki that made it 23-21.

Two sacks were registered by New England. Carl Davis Jr. was credited with the first on a three-man rush. Fellow defensive tackle Christian Barmore got the second.

Cornerback shortage meets 1,000-yard Dolphins tandem

Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle entered with 180 catches for 2,892 yards and 15 touchdowns combined on the campaign. The tandem of Dolphins wideouts tacked on seven catches for 107 yards from there against a cornerback room down several. The latter wasn’t targeted until a third-down incompletion with six minutes left before halftime. Yet the targets for the former got underway on the first drive. They continued with what went in the gamebook as a rushing score to tie things at 7-7.

The Patriots moved Jack Jones to injured reserve on New Year’s Eve and ruled out fellow rookie Marcus Jones on the final injury report. Shaun Wade went to the inactives. And despite being listed as questionable, so did Jalen Mills for the fifth straight week because of a lingering groin injury.

That left Jonathan Jones, who later intercepted the Dolphins’ rookie QB, starting on the outside across from Myles Bryant. In the three-safety nickel, New England’s depth chart would be backed by a standard elevation in Quandre Mosely and a 53-man roster promotion in Tae Hayes. And zone coverage.

Dugger’s third touchdown gives defense four in as many weeks

On third-and-15 in the third quarter, Kyle Dugger picked off a pass and returned it down the sideline 39 yards for points. A 16-14 game it became.

It marked the safety from Lenoir-Rhyne’s third touchdown of the season — a feat no defensive player had accomplished for the Patriots since 1970. It also marked his defense’s fourth in as many weeks.

New England now stands with a new franchise record with seven defensive touchdowns on the year.

No. 10 throws for 50 yards on opening drive, finishes with 203

When the Cincinnati Bengals visited Foxborough on Christmas Eve, quarterback Mac Jones attempted one pass in the first quarter. He got going sooner on Sunday.

The team captain completed 4-of-6 throws for 50 yards and a touchdown on the initial series. But the next four series — excluding the one that brought the matchup to halftime — all resulted in punts. No. 10 regained rhythm to finish 20-of-33 for 203 yards with two touchdowns.

New England’s attack was in the hands of wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Tyquan Thornton with early catches of 17 and 24 yards — as well as a red-zone touchdown for the rookie as tight end Hunter Henry attracted seam coverage. That trio combined to collect 160 yards by game’s end. And Meyers went above the rim for a touchdown of his own in the fourth quarter. But a week removed from setting a career high with 100 receiving yards and scoring his first touchdown of the season, Kendrick Bourne gained 16 on his first target in the final frame.

Offensive line outlasts two Miami sacks in three plays

New England kept November signing Conor McDermott at right tackle with Mike Onwenu, David Andrews, Cole Strange and Trent Brown to his left on Sunday. The starting offensive line soon battled through a bad stretch in the second quarter.

Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins delivered on a sack that set up a second-and-19. Two plays later, so did Patriots-turned-Dolphins captain Elandon Roberts on another that knocked the offense out of range for a field goal. And en route to a punt on the next series, New England’s towering left tackle was flagged for a false start — his 13th penalty of the season.

But there would only be one more sack allowed to a front missing Bradley Chubb off the edges. On fourth down with 2:32 still to tick, it was notched by defensive lineman Zach Sieler.

Harris returns to New England’s ground operation

Damien Harris rejoined New England’s running back room after missing the previous four games due to a thigh injury. The Alabama product’s first handoff picked up eight yards in a matinee he finished with nine carries for 32 yards to go with three catches for 18 yards.

But it would be Rhamondre Stevenson starting. Pacing the offense with 258 touches, 1,328 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns this season, he added 10 touches for 51 yards. Acceleration and vision were on display as the sophomore cut through for 18 yards. A drop on third-and-7 surfaced after halftime, however.

Rookie fourth-round pick Pierre Strong Jr. rounded out the backfield as the primary kickoff returner.