The New England Patriots (8-3) travel to South Florida on Sunday afternoon to take on the Miami Dolphins (5-6) in the first of two divisional games between the two teams in the month of December.

The Patriots enter on a roll, winners of five in a row with the last two being blowouts of the Colts and Jets. Miami had lost three in a row but won a big game last Sunday over Seattle with a last second field goal. With the win, the Dolphins are still in the running for a playoff spot.

For the Patriots, Sunday is a hat and t-shirt game. With a win, they will wrap up another AFC East title, hence the hat and t-shirts in the locker at the conclusion. As always, Bill Belichick always stresses winning the division first and that would be the first step in the bigger prize.

So let’s take a look at this week’s matchups:

Patriots running game:
The Patriots have made great strides in becoming more balanced in 2012, and the results thus far have been very good. With an already prolific passing attack, when teams load up in sub-packages, the Patriots run at them with Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen.

Last week against the Jets, it worked to perfection and look for them to do the same thing this week against Miami. The Fins run defense has been good this season allowing only 96.7 yards per game. It starts in the middle with tackles Randy Starks and Paul Solai who stuff the run in the middle and allow the linebackers to clean up.

But look for the Patriots to run off-tackle in this one, targeting DE Cameron Wake. Wake is an outstanding pass rusher who’ll be looked to getting after Tom Brady and disrupting the passing game. The Patriots are very good at taking advantage of these matchups and catch Wake on a rush to the outside with some traps. The Patriots should run the ball effectively in this one, especially as the game wears on.

Dolphins running game:
Reggie Bush
is having another good season for Miami, rushing for just under 700 yards for the year and averaging 4.4 yards per rush. Patriots fans remember his big game last season when he gashed the team early in New England. He’s backed up by Daniel Thomas, 306 rushing yards, 3.7 yards per carry.

The Dolphins will attempt to neutralize Vince Wilfork in the middle with Mike Pouncey of the line and get Bush to the outside. Thomas is more of an inside runner. Miami will not want to get into a shoot-out with New England, so early downs and the importance of getting positive yardage is a key here. Don’t discount Ryan Tannehill scrambling as well, their best bet is to grind it out with a balanced attack and keep the game close.

But before a lot of Patriots fans panic about the rush defense the past few weeks remember this, although the Jets and Colts had early success running the ball the past two games, the Patriots adjusted and stopped them.

The NFL is a copycat league and teams were taking advantage of the Pats sub-packages and getting to the edge, where the team has been excellent this season. While occasionally getting caught in the wrong gap, instinctive LB Brandon Spikes has been a force in the run defense this season. Look for he and Wilfork to try to disrupt Bush in the backfield before he can get going.

Patriots passing game:
Since the end of the Seattle game Tom Brady has been ‘en fuego’, throwing 190 passes with an INT and tossing 14 TDs and 0 picks. The Patriots have a plethora of weapons in the passing game even without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup.

Normally the Patriots attack the middle of the field but the Dolphins linebackers are solid led by MLB Karlos Dansby and Koa Misi and safety Chris Clemons is athletic enough to challenge Aaron Hernandez.

Where Miami is vulnerable is on the outside the numbers and look for Tom Brady to attack the corners Nolan Carroll and Sean Smith who have struggled this season. It is doubtful we’ll see Julian Edelman this week but Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker should be more than up to the task of finding open seams in the defense.

Miami has excellent pass rushers in Wake from the outside and Starks in the middle. They’ll need big games from them to slow the New England offense. It is unclear at this point but doubtful that Logan Mankins returns this week, but the offensive line play has been excellent.

Dolphins passing game:
Ryan Tannehill
has been playing well in his rookie season and led the team to a confidence boosting late win over Seattle last week. But on the flip-side he’s thrown only 7 TDs against 12 INTs. Against a ball-hawking turnover creating Patriots defense, that is something from a Dolphins perspective that will need to be watched closely.

The Dolphins receiving crew is largely short of fireworks inducing players with Brian Hartline, Davone Bess (each with 55 receptions), and tight ends Anthony Fasano and Charles Clay who had a career day Sunday. Bess had his best game of the season last week with 7 catches out of the slot and will be a key matchup for Kyle Arrington. Look for Miami to try to get Bush involved in the passing game by isolating him on one of the Patriots linebackers who struggle in coverage.

With the Patriots secondary getting solidified with the return of Steve Gregory being paired with Devin McCourty at safety, the communication at the back end of the defense has been much better, resulting in fewer breakdowns in coverage. Coupled with the improved play at corner with Alfonzo Dennard and the arrival of Aqib Talib, this is a matchup the Patriots should win.

The Dolphins have given up 22 sacks with the availability of Chandler Jones in question; it will fall to Rob Ninkovich to create pressure from the edge. With DE/DT Jermaine Cunningham suspended, the depth at the DL gets tested. The Patriots will rely on veteran Trevor Scott and rookie Justin Francis; perhaps even getting Jake Bequette in the mix. Look for the Patriots to blitz Tannehill in third and long situations where the Dolphins have been turnover prone.

Special Teams:
Where Miami’s offense has struggled, their STs boasts a very dangerous return man in Marcus Thigpen, who is averaging 29.4 yards per return in the kicking game (incl. 96 yard TD), and 13.6 in the punt return game (incl.72 yard TD).

Punter Brandon Fields is having an excellent season averaging 50.5 yards per punt with 20 of them downed inside the 20 yard line. The Dolphins coverage units have been solid thus far this season although Dan Carpenter hasn’t been able to connect from 50+ yards (0-3).

The Patriots have been getting very positive results lately in the punt return game from Julian Edelman but his availability for this game is doubtful with a concussion. The kick return game remains a non-factor, but the coverage units have been very solid this season.

Zoltan Mesko is getting better as the season goes on with 20 of his 34 punts being downed inside the 20 yard line. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed another easily makeable kick early last week against the Jets that was lost in the blowout. His struggles bear watching as the season winds down and the playoffs creep closer.

“X”- factors:
While many teams might be caught looking ahead to the next two big games in Foxboro against Houston and San Francisco, that is doubtful with the division game in Miami looming. Besides, being a game where the team can close out the division with four games to play, Bill Belichick should have the team focused and ready.

And no one has been playing better than the Patriots the past few weeks, winning five in a row and scoring 108 points the last two games.

Miami got off to an interesting start but everything collapsed on them before rebounding last week against the Seahawks. Now they’re still in the hunt for a possible playoff berth and will be throwing it all out there in an attempt to see how they measure up to one of the big boys in the AFC.

But as we’ve seen in the past few years, the Patriots are the best in getting prepared for January by taking care of business in November and December and will be giving the Dolphins all they can handle on their home turf.

Conclusion/Prediction:
The key to this one will once again ultimately be turnovers, Miami is -10 in the turnover game and can ill-afford to give the Patriots any breaks with their powerful offense. The Patriots are the NFL’s best at +24 and have been ratcheting up the turnovers.

From a Patriots perspective, the keys to this remain constant from week to week:

  • Run the ball and stay balanced and the play-action passing game will decimate the suspect secondary of Miami.
  • Protect Brady, start quickly and force Miami into a mindset of having to try to score with the Patriots, something they’re ill-equipped for.
  • Stuff the running game and force the ball into Tannehill’s hands. If they do this, the opportunity for turnovers will increase and they’ll ultimately have success.

Look for Wes Welker to have another big game against the Dolphins. In two games against the Dolphins in 2011 Welker had 20 catches for 298 yards and 2 TDs. They have no answer for him and if they double him down low; it opens up other avenues in the passing game for Tom Brady.

The Patriots improved running game will also have a good day, look for Shane Vereen to complement Stevan Ridley and have a good game this week both running and pass receiving. The Patriots matchup well in this game and they will get the lead early and keep the pressure on. Patriots roll to another AFC East title 38-14.