The New England Patriots (11-4) return home for the final game of the season to face the Miami Dolphins (7-8) before the 2012 playoffs start.

The Patriots have already clinched the AFC East and are guaranteed a slot in the playoffs, however depending upon the outcome of this game and others, the Patriots could still end up anywhere between the #1-4 seed.

But any hope for a bye means that first they have to take care of business and beat the Miami Dolphins. Then if either Houston or Denver loses, the Patriots will move up to the #2 seed. If both lose and the Patriots win, the Patriots will get the #1 seed. If the Patriots lose and Baltimore wins, the Patriots fall to the #4 seed.

Confusing? Somewhat, but by the time of the Patriots kickoff at 4:15 p.m., they will know the outcome of the Houston game and should have a much better idea of where their playoff slot will be. So on to the matchups:

Patriots Running Game:
The Patriots will have a rather tough time running against the Dolphins in this one. The offensive line, as we said on Monday is beat up and not playing well. The Patriots had a rough time running the ball against the porous run defense in the Jaguars, and Miami’s is much better. With the injuries along the offensive line, we may see the backups get some quality snaps on Sunday, regardless of the score.

I would expect the Patriots to attempt to keep the pass rush of Miami honest by sticking with and being patient with the run in this one. Stevan Ridley ran well in Jacksonville and he’ll get between 15-20 carries to get him ready for the post-season. Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden will all get some snaps in this one and expect the Patriots to go with the hot hand.

Last game down in Miami, the Patriots “disrespected” the Dolphins by running the ball down their throats and eating up the clock in a one-score game. They wore down the Dolphins front seven and eventually had their way.

Miami has Randy Starks and Jared Odrick on the right side who both excel at setting things up for MLB Karlos Dansby to clean up. Look for the Patriots to run more at DE Cameron Wake on the other side in an attempt to slow him down with his pass rush.

Dolphins Running Game:
The Patriots defense had issues stopping the run, especially early in the game against Jacksonville last week. They spread out the defense and in stealing a page from the Patriots notebook, ran at the NE nickel packages.

With the shuffling of players in the secondary due to injury and the team’s best run stuffer in Brandon Spikes out hurt really affected the run defense. Spikes may not be in action on Sunday, and this may hurt the Patriots chances of shutting down the run.

Reggie Bush has proven to be much more durable than given credit for before coming to Miami. He’s been able to shoulder the load quite nicely as the Dolphins lead back and brings a nice dimension to the Miami offense either carrying the ball or catching it out of the backfield.

Averaging nearly four and a half yards per carry and needing only 40 yards for a 1000 yard season, Bush is always a handful and a threat to break one every time he touches the ball. The Patriots held him in check for the most part in Miami and will be looking to do it again and make the Dolphins offense one-dimensional. Without Spikes in the lineup, it may be easier said than done.

Patriots Passing Game:

Tom Brady has had pretty pedestrian numbers the past two weeks and going back to the game in Miami, the Dolphins did a very good job of limiting the Patriots passing offense. Brady completed only 24 of 40 for 238 yards and 1 TD and 1INT in the first meeting.

The Dolphins’ corners Sean Smith and Reshad Jones did a great job of covering the outside, holding Brandon Lloyd and Julian Edelman to a single catch each. And with Koa Misi and Cameron Wake bringing pressure, they have an excellent chance of doing so again.

With a banged up offensive line, the Patriots are reeling on offense right now. They allowed more pressure on Brady in Jacksonville with an anemic pass rush than they did against San Francisco. That can’t be allowed to happen not only this week but moving forward in the playoffs, if the team wants to advance.

The receiving corps is banged up as well, Rob Gronkowski is questionable (officially) for this game while on the mend from a broken forearm, but at this juncture, I’d be shocked to see him play this week. Julian Edelman is on IR, and Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd are all nursing injuries at this point.

But the Patriots are looking to get off to a much faster start in this one unlike the past two weeks and I’d look for Brady to hook up with Welker and Lloyd early and often in this one. Welker was the bright spot in the first meeting, catching a dozen passes and a touchdown.

Dolphins Passing Game:
The Patriots did a good job of limiting Ryan Tannehill in the first meeting, holding the rookie for just 186 yards passing for the game. The normally productive Davone Bess and Anthony Fasano were each held to a single reception. Tannehill did hook up with Brian Hartline for 84 yards on 5 catches and he had the opportunity for more but overthrew him a few times.

But Hartline and Bess are both dealing with back issues right now and the Dolphins OL like the Patriots’ is banged up now. LT Jake Long is on IR and Nate Garner is filling in at RT so expect the Patriots to try to bring a bit more pressure in this one.

The NFL being a copy-cat league, the Dolphins may opt to take a page out the Jaguars game plan of last week and spread the Patriots out and try to pass on early downs to set up 2nd and 3rd and short situations for the running game.

Special Teams:
This is one area where the Dolphins have a clear advantage, even with K Dan Carpenter on IR. Marcus Thigpen is returning both kickoffs and punts for Miami and has been doing a fantastic job. Averaging 28.5 and 12.1 yards respectively, Thigpen has returned a kickoff as well as a punt for a touchdown.

Carpenter has been replaced by solid veteran Nate Kaeding in the kicking department and the Fins boast P Brandon Fields who has been outstanding. Fields is averaging 50.3 yards per punt this season with 26 of them downed inside the 20 yard line. The Dolphins coverage units have been very solid.

The Patriots Stephen Gostkowski seems to have refound his groove, hitting his last eight field goal attempts. Zoltan Mesko is also turning it up a notch as the season winds down, hitting some big punts and pinning opponents deep. The coverage units have been solid for the most part but the Patriots return game, especially on kickoffs remains pedestrian.

“X”- Factors:
The Patriots can still finish anywhere from the #1 – #4 seed in the playoffs and this game remains a very important one. If the Colts can upset Houston at home, that will open the door to a bye week that the Patriots need more than most given the amount of injuries that the team has suffered down the stretch.

I doubt Bill Belichick rests his starters in this one, the team has traditionally not done that and with the team struggling the past two weeks, will look to right the ship. The Dolphins will play hard despite having been eliminated a week ago, and will look to finish 8-8 and knock the Patriots out of any bye week consideration.

The key for the Patriots is to start quickly and in the cold, wintery conditions of Foxborough, get the Dolphins to start thinking about the golf tee times in South Florida and not let them hang around deep into the game.

Conclusions/Prediction:
This is a big game for the Patriots, make no mistake about it. Not only does it hold a possibility of a bye week, but it is needed to fix two weeks of subpar performances by a team that needs to get ready for the postseason.

The key this week is the play of the offensive line, their performance against San Francisco was actually much better than that against Jacksonville where they were pushed around by a much inferior team.

I think Dante Scarnecchia will light a fire under the players this week and we should see a much improved game from the unit this week, especially in the passing game where they were not holding up well at all.

For the Patriots it is imperative this week to start off quickly, they need to get the Dolphins down and not let them into the game. Miami has nothing to play for save pride in this one and the best way to get a win is to get up early and put pressure on their offense to try to keep up.

The keys to a victory from a Patriots perspective are:

  • Stop the run: Take away Reggie Bush running the ball and make the Dolphins offense one dimensional.
  • Bring pressure on Tannehill: Last week, they were not bringing good pressure on Henne until crunch time, they’ll need to do a better job on Sunday and force Tannehill into making some mistakes, i.e. turnovers.
  • Protect The Franchise: The OL play last week was probably the worst since the Arizona game. It will have to be much, much better this week and give Brady time to throw.
  • Stay Balanced: The Patriots need to run the ball more effectively and keep Miami’s pass rush honest, it will also open up play-action passes.

Look for the veterans, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, Brandon Lloyd and Tom Brady to step up this week on offense, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo on defense to show the way for the younger guys. The Patriots should start much better in this one and see when they’re playing, if at all next week. Patriots 31-21