By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots travel to warm, sunny Florida to take on their divisional rival Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The game has a scheduled start time at 1 p.m. and will be televised on CBS with their top announcing crew of Jim Nantz (play-by-play) and Phil Simms (analyst) on the call.
The Patriots (10-3) can clinch another AFC East title with the win on Sunday; in 2012 they did clinch the division with a win over Miami in South Florida. The Patriots were dominated for the vast majority of the game on Sunday but Tom Brady pulled out another miraculous finish, leading the team to two touchdowns in the last minute to nip the Cleveland Browns 27-26.
The Dolphins (7-6) are locked in a battle for the sixth and final playoff spot with the Baltimore Ravens although it is Baltimore that owns the tie breaker. The Dolphins won a wild one in Pittsburgh on Sunday 34-28, where it seemed the Steelers won in an improbable razzle-dazzle finish but Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds at the 10 yard line on what would have been an 80 yard touchdown on the game’s final play.
Earlier this season we looked at the Dolphins for the first matchup in New England, now we’re going back for our second five impressions of the Dolphins:
Philbin Weathers the Storm: When the teams last met, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin was definitely on the hot seat. After a 3-0 start the Dolphins lost three in a row and the resultant fiasco with Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito fell right into his lap. After a loss to New England, Miami was reeling.
But instead of completely breaking apart the team, the Dolphins have righted the ship and Philbin deserves a large share of that credit. Miami has won three of their last four games and are fighting for a playoff spot.
How the season’s final three games play out could still affect his status, after the Patriots Miami plays Buffalo and the Jets, the Dolphins could find themselves at 10-6 and in the playoffs. If they do that, Philbin would most certainly return, if they stumble he could once again find himself in jeopardy.
Tannehill Stepping Up: With Miami’s season hanging in the balance, QB Ryan Tannehill has been playing well and in the past three games has completed 64 percent of his passes going 76 for 118, good for 841 yards and has 6 TDs against 3 INTs for a QB rating of 94.8. He’s been scrambling out of the pocket as well tallying up 114 rushing yards in those games as well.
With questions surrounding him; the prevailing attitude is that with all the new pieces added by the team, it would be up to Tannehill to prove he belonged at the helm, he’s so far been holding up his end of the bargain. With a big win on the road in snowy Pittsburgh, Tannehill has the Dolphins in good shape for a stretch run. Now his last big test will be going against Brady and the Patriots.
Defense Stingy Against Wide Receivers: Great stat provided by Field Yates of ESPN Boston is that the Dolphins have only allowed 4 touchdowns by wide receivers in 2013. One of those touchdowns was a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson.
But the Dolphins kryptonite has been tight ends in the red zone, allowing 12 touchdowns. This is an area where Rob Gronkowski would have been a dominant presence for the Patriots, and one less thing for the Dolphins to concern themselves with.
Speaking about the Miami defense, second year player Olivier Vernon should be on fan’s radar as a player to watch. While everyone knows Cameron Wake and what he brings to the pass rush, it has been Vernon who leads the team in sacks with 11.5 on the side opposite Wake.
Something to keep in mind, in the first meeting, Tom Brady threw for only 116 yards with Gronkowski having 2 receptions for 27. Miami did a very good job of limiting the Patriots passing attack. At home, they’ll be looking to do the same thing.
Hartline/Clay Players To Watch: While all eyes will be on the Mike Wallace – Aqib Talib matchup to the outside on Sunday, the two players to watch in Miami’s passing game are actually Brian Hartline and TE Charles Clay.
Tannehill has found them more than anyone else, Hartline leads the Fins in receptions with 67 and Clay is second with 60, they are his favorite go-to targets to keep the chains moving. In the first meeting in New England, Clay led all Miami receivers with five catches and Hartline was second with four.
With the success Cleveland had with TE Jordan Cameron on Sunday, one can rest assured that Miami will be watching that tape to see where they can attack the Patriots defense with Clay. He also led the team with 7 receptions for 97 yards against Pittsburgh.
Miami’s Running Game Still Struggling: The Dolphins have consistently had troubles running the football all season, averaging only 95.8 yards per game good for only 23rd in the league. And now their running backs are hurting, Daniel Thomas was questionable to even play in Pittsburgh but came in and rushed the ball well. The Dolphins lost RB Lamar Miller on Sunday to a concussion and it is uncertain if he’ll be ready to go on Sunday.
Thomas is a bigger, more physical back and has 384 yards on 93 carries, good for a 4.1 yard average and four touchdowns. Thomas, who is the faster of the two has gotten the majority of snaps, netting 567 yards on 142 carries and is the type of back the Patriots traditionally struggle against. It will be interesting to see if he’s able to go on Sunday.
The Patriots have had major issues stopping the run all season since injuries rocked their interior defensive line, last week they did do a good job of limiting Cleveland’s running backs, but Miami will want to keep their attack balanced this week.