Wes Welker had a huge game against the Dolphins in Miami during Week 1

The New England Patriots (11-3) return home to face the Miami Dolphins (5-9) in Foxborough on Christmas Eve. The Saturday afternoon game pits two divisional rivals against each other for the 93rd time. The Dolphins lead the all-time series 50-42 but the Patriots have won the last three contests.

New England with the win over Denver last week has captured another AFC East crown, their ninth in the past eleven years as the team under Bill Belichick remains one of the teams to be reckoned with in the AFC. The Dolphins meanwhile, got off to horrid 0-7 start that belied how hard the team has played all season. Since then, they are a very respectable 5-2 and are coming off a 30-23 victory over Buffalo that was not as close as the score would indicate. Miami after a slow start dominated the Bills, netting the first win for interim coach Todd Bowles.

The Patriots need to win this game and next week’s against the Buffalo Bills to maintain their now #1 seed in the AFC playoff race. Last week Houston, Baltimore and then Pittsburgh all were defeated leaving the Pats all alone in the top slot. Winning these last two games is important as it will guarantee the Patriots won’t have to travel in the playoffs unless they make it all the way to Indianapolis. With that thought in mind, who has the edge this week? Let’s take a look at the matchups.

Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots ended up with some pretty solid numbers running the ball against Denver, however in the early going they had a rough time getting the running game untracked. The last time they faced the Dolphins on the opening Monday Night Football Week 1, they ran the ball well as the Dolphins defense was shredded in the South Florida heat.

Since going 0-7, the Dolphins defense has gotten progressively better, they are averaging giving up only 89.9 yards rushing per game which is good for third in the NFL, and before I’m bombarded with the old “who’ve they stopped” chant, they have stifled some excellent rushing teams. Oakland was held to just 46 yards rushing. The Giants with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw could only manage 58 yards. LeSean McCoy of the Eagles was held to just 38 yards in 27 carries and as a team the Eagles averaged only 1.6 yards per rush.

The Dolphins use a 3-4 front of nose tackle Paul Soliai, Randy Starks, Kendall Langford, Tony McDaniel and Jared Odrick. They substitute much like the Patriots do and it keeps their DL fresh. The Dolphins front seven are physical and welcome the challenge of stopping the run.

For the Pats, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is struggling lately, and his toe injury may be a lingering issue. But Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead have both run well. The Patriots will have to mix up some of their runs out of their passing schemes to keep the Dolphins guessing, but overall the yards will be tough against the stout Dolphins front seven. One of the keys will be to see if the Pats Logan Mankins and C Ryan Wendell are able to push Solai back in the middle.

Patriots Passing Game:
Likewise since the Fins were annihilated on Week 1 by Brady to the tune of 517 yards passing , their pass defense struggled during their slow start. Opposing QBs had a QB rating of 103.1, but since then, the Dolphins have greatly improved, holding opponents to a much better 84.3 QB rating. Smith had two INTs on Sunday against the Bills, part of three Miami had on the day.

That starts with greatly improved play out of corners Vontae Davis and Sean Smith and goes through the edge rushers Cameron Wake with 7.5 sacks along with Jason Taylor 6 sacks providing pressure. Miami suffered a blow when on Tuesday afternoon; they placed very good OLB Koa Misi on season-ending IR.

But the Patriots passing attack is unlike any of the teams they have faced lately, in that Brady and the Pats love to attack the middle of the field, negating Miami’s strength to the outside. In the first matchup Wes Welker burned the Fins for 8 catches for 160 yards including the 99 yard touchdown pass from Brady.

Brady also hit TE Aaron Hernandez 7 times for 103 yards in the first matchup as he torched S Rashad Jones. The problem for the Dolphins is if they move their best linebacker Karlos Dansby, to cover Rob Gronkowski, then they have to roll the dice and assume Jones will do a better job of covering Hernandez. Expect them to slide Davis over to try to cover Welker this time around and Chad Ochocinco should be singled up on Smith, providing that Deion Branch’s groin injury hasn’t healed enough for him to play.

Either way, like every other week, the matchups remain firmly in favor of New England provided they give Brady time to throw. Look for Matt Light and Nate Solder to have their hands full with Wake and old nemesis Taylor. But the Patriots should be able to handle them with help if needed to give Brady time to throw.

Dolphins Running Game:
Reggie Bush had a career day, shredding the Bills defense in snowy, cold Buffalo on Sunday for 203 yards. The trade bringing him to South Beach was generally met with derision this summer, but Bush has held up and is averaging 5 yards per carry on the season.  Daniel Thomas spells Bush on occasion but isn’t having the success of his running partner.

With Jake Long questionable with back issues, he’ll be replaced with John Jerry. They will be looking to continue their success they had in Buffalo. The Patriots meanwhile have seen their solid rushing defense get gashed two weeks in a row. First it was Roy Helu and the Redskins who ran for 170 yards, which Denver last nearly equaled in the first quarter, utilizing their spread option attack with Tim Tebow.

But after losing their arguably best run stuffer on the edge with Andre Carter, the Patriots shifted back to their familiar 3-4 and Mark Anderson did a good job setting the edge along with Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots adjusted very well. The knock against Anderson is that he is weak against the run. The Patriots ILBs Dane Fletcher and Jerod Mayo got off to a slow start last week in Denver, filling the wrong gaps or over-pursuing the play, but they too played much better in the final three quarters. The Patriots really need a healthy Brandon Spikes back on the field. Spikes gives the Patriots that physical, instinctive run stuffer in the middle. His availability for Saturday’s game is unknown as his return from a knee injury drags on.

Expect the Dolphins to test the edges of the Patriots defense running at Anderson, but if the last three quarters of the Denver game are any indication, the Patriots should be up to the task of slowing them down.

Dolphins Passing Game:
The Dolphins have gotten much more from QB Matt Moore than was originally thought. Moore has played well; he suffered a concussion against the Eagles a few weeks ago but played against Buffalo and played well. The Dolphins possess some nice weapons in the passing game with Brandon Marshall and the underrated Brian Hartline.

Marshall is somewhat of an enigma here, as he possesses the talent to produce monster games yet leads the league in drops. Marshall had a big game against New England earlier this season but the Dolphins never know which one will show up. Against the Patriots however, their two biggest weapons will probably be TE Anthony Fasano and excellent slot receiver Davone Bess, both of them have given the Patriots fits in the past.

The Patriots meanwhile continue to run a patchwork secondary utilizing WRs due to injuries. CB Devin McCourty has struggled this season, and the safeties position changes from week to week. A lot would be solved if Pat Chung could return; he’d handle the deep responsibilities and allow James Ihedigbo to be the physical run stuffer down low where he is much better suited. Expect to see more of Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman in nickel formations.

The Patriots pass rush will bear close watching this week, losing Carter who led the team with 10 sacks will be hard to replace. Anderson has 9 sacks in more limited snap counts but now he’ll garner a lot of attention. It will be up to Ninkovich on the opposite side or perhaps Markell Carter to pick up the slack and help provide pressure.

Carter the rookie DE/OLB may be activated and see his first action of the season. It would be a perfect time to see what the rook may bring to the table in next year’s training camp. Either way expect Moore to get plenty of yards between the 20s. The big key will be once again in the Red Zone. If the Patriots can hold there with a few stops or turnovers they should be in good shape.

SPECIAL TEAMS:
The Patriots have a slight advantage in the kicking game with Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko providing very solid seasons for New England. Mesko turned field position three times in the Denver game by pinning the Broncos inside their 20 yard line. The Dolphins are solid as well in the kicking department with Dan Carpenter and Brandon Fields.

Miami has the slight edge in the return department with the dangerous Bess on punt return duty and rookie Clyde Gates returning kickoffs. The Patriots return game has been ho-hum on kickoffs but Julian Edelman had a good game in Denver last week.

Both teams have been solid in coverage this season, with the Patriots turning in perhaps their best performance of the year last week. Call this matchup a push, but New England does have an advantage if the weather turns into a winter wonderland.

“X”-Factors:
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots come out for this game. After being involved in all the hype over Tebow and the Broncos and winning convincingly as well as clinching the division, will they come out flat? Not if Belichick has anything to say about it. At Tuesday’s press conference, asked about being (for now) the #1 seed in the AFC, Belichick stared for about 3 seconds before answering “Our focus this week is on Miami, the rest of that is for you guys (media) to write about.”

Todd Bowles got off to rough start in Buffalo in his debut before his team, like New England came back to dominate their game on the road. One thing regardless of their record that cannot be over-emphasized for Miami is, even when this team was 0-7 they never stopped playing hard for Tony Sparano, never stopped believing in their coach, their teammates and themselves. They have played hard every week and expect them to play as if something was on the line for them other than pride.

The Patriots are once again AFC East champions for the ninth time in the past 11 years and are in a prime position to set themselves up for home field advantage throughout the playoffs. It’s a Bill Belichick mantra and one, although the team will never speak about openly, a goal they want to attain, especially after the Texans, Ravens and Steelers all stumbled in the same position. Expect that point to be driven home.  One thing to keep in mind is the Patriots stellar record in December, especially playing at home.  Since opening Gillette Stadium in 2002, no one is close to equaling the Patriots outstanding home record of 72-15. That is a huge advantage as the team is supremely confident of pulling out a win in its friendly confines.

Conclusions:
This one will be another tough divisional game, Miami and New England know each other well and not much can be done on either side of the ball that hasn’t been seen by the other. With that said, expect the Dolphins to pull out all the stops as they attempt to challenge their division rivals and possibly knock them out of the #1 seed.

I think both teams are going to be able pass the ball, although don’t expect 900+ yards passing in this one like the opening weekend. Miami’s defense has improved quite a bit since their poor start but the matchups in the middle of the field still favor Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.

Brady and Moore will both work the middle of the field and find the gaps there, but in the second half the Patriots have too many weapons for the Dolphins to handle. This one will be close for three quarters but expect the Patriots to hold serve at home as their offense is too much for the Fins to handle.  Patriots 31-20