By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots will leave snowy Foxboro this weekend for some South Florida sunshine as they take on the Miami Dolphins in the first of two back-toback crucial road games as the season winds down.
Sunday is a â€śHat and T-Shirt Gameâ€ť as if they win, the Patriots will be AFC East champions for the fifth straight time and each player will find a Division champs hat and shirt in their locker at the conclusion of the game.Their first goal every year is to win the division, and last yearâ€™s trip to Miami, the Patriots did just that.
The game is scheduled for 1 p.m. and will be televised on CBS, with their top announcing crew ofÂ Jim NantzÂ andÂ Phil Simms on the call.
The Patriots (10-3) survived with another miracle finish by Tom Brady, escaping with a 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns. Brady led two touchdown drives in the final minute and a half to get the win.
The Dolphins (7-6) are coming off a crazy win of their own 34-28 in Pittsburgh as it seemed the Steelers scored on a bizarre 80 yard touchdown as time ran out but Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds at the nine yard line and the Fins prevailed. They are locked in a battle with the Baltimore Ravens for the sixth and final playoff spot.
We here atÂ PatsFans.comÂ are going to try something a little bit different this season. Our new weekly column, theÂ â€śRazorâ€™s Edgeâ€ťÂ gives a quick break down on some of the key matchups of the game and what to look for in how the game plays out.
The Patriots and Dolphins are getting ready to meet for the 97th time including the playoffs. All-time the Dolphins hold a slim 50-46 margin but with a big 29-19 edge at home. However the Patriots have won the last seven meetings including a 27-17 victory in Foxboro earlier this season. The Dolphinsâ€™ last win came in December 2009 with a win in Miami.
The Patriots offense once again will have to retool and reconfigure itself in the wake of the season-ending injury to TE Rob Gronkowski who tore his ACL on Sunday in the game against Cleveland.
The offense in the first six games of the season without him was rated as the 22nd in the league in scoring. Since his return theyâ€™ve jumped all the way to sixth in the league with only Denver scoring more points during that time. Now it will be up to Josh McDaniels to find a way to get everyone else involved and try to pick up the slack.
They canâ€™t replace his production or presence with a single player so it will have to be a collarborative group effort especially in the red zone if they want to be successful going down the stretch this season.
Since the first Miami game the Patriots passing offense in the last five games has been on fire going for 1861 yards or averaging 372.2 yards per game. Tom Brady has been much sharper and the return of Shane Vereen has certainly helped as heâ€™s caught 40 passes out of the backfield this season.
One can expect an even greater reliance on the running game which has been consistent this season down the stretch. Stevan Ridley, LaGarrette Blount, Vereen and Brandon Bolden give the Pats a deep, talented and varied group who all bring different things to the table.
Patriots RBs vs Dolphins Front Seven-Â Â NE 120.0 YPG,Â 4.2 YPCÂ Edge Patriots
The Patriots ran the ball well in the first meeting (152 yards) and they should be able to run the ball again. The key is to get to the second level behind big bodies Paul Solai and Randy Starks and run right at them. Sometimes the Dolphins edge rushers are too aggressive and going at them is the way to beat them.
Miamiâ€™s run defense has been better in the past two games holding the Jets and Steelers to under 100 yards rushing after a rough five game stretch where they were allowing an average of over 146 yards per game.
The Patriots must stay patient with the run game as they were in the first meeting and keep things mixed up. And they should be able to find some running room again.
Patriots WRs vs Dolphins Secondary-Â NE 269.5 YPGÂ Edge Patriots
The Patriots passing game has been going very well in the past five games as we mentioned above, but now must deal with the loss of Gronkowski who opened up all kinds of room for other receivers to roam.
Miamiâ€™s pass defense is 9th in the NFL (229.8 YPG) and relies on its edge rushers Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon (19.5 sacks combined) to disrupt the passing game. They also love to show pressure with their linebackers in the â€śDouble Aâ€ť gap where they show blitz and force the QB to audible.
The Dolphins are dealing with injuries to their defense as CBs Dimitri Patterson and R.J. Stanford were placed on IR this week. Safety Reshad Jones may miss this weekâ€™s game due to injury as well.
Brady will be looking to get Vereen again involved early in the passing game and attack the middle of the field. But the outside receivers, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins (if available) will have to step up and give Brady legitimate stretching of the field outside. Otherwise, Miami will crash down and flood the middle of the field to take away the passing lanes. Miami held Brady to only 116 yards in the first meeting, but look for the Patriots to do much better this time around.
The Patriots defense has been reeling not only from injuries but lately from being gashed by the opposition. The rush defense has struggled all season especially after losing Wilfork, Kelly and Mayo in the middle but lately the pass defense has been showing cracks as well.
The injuries to CBs Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are taking their toll and weâ€™ve been seeing more of a zone look, something this defense is not particularly well suited to, nor very good in executing.
The pass rush hasnâ€™t been as good lately with opposing QBs getting much too comfortable in the pocket, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will have to elevate their games heading down the stretch for the last three games and into January.
Dolphins RBs vs NE Front Seven-Â Miami 95.8 YPG, 4.3 YPA Edge Dolphins
The Miami running game hasnâ€™t been particularly effective this season but got a big boost last week from Daniel Thomas who stepped in for Lamar Miller in Pittsburgh after Miller suffered a concussion and rushed for over 100 yards.
Miller has been back to practice but hasnâ€™t been cleared yet to play on Sunday and was a key cog in the first meeting netting 89 of Miamiâ€™s 156 rushing yards. Although the Dolphinsâ€™ brass has said it doesnâ€™t want QB Ryan Tannehill to run the football, they broke out the â€śread optionâ€ť on Sunday in Pittsburgh and the results were impressive, including a 48 yard scramble by Tannehill.
The Patriots scrapped the 3-4 look for the most part last week, going back to a 4-3 over look and the rush defense against Clevelandâ€™s running backs was better, allowing only a 2.2 yard per average rush. But the next two weeks will be much stiffer tests for the defense.
Dolphins WRs vs NE Secondary- Â Miami 221.9 YPG Edge Dolphins
Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland has surrounded QB Ryan Tannehill will some talented options in the passing game. Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson and TE Charles Clay all bring good production to the table and offer Tannehill plenty of places to look when throwing the football. It has just been a question of consistency this season.
Offensive line woes havenâ€™t helped as Tannehill has been sacked 48 times but lately the play of the offensive line has been greatly improved. A key matchup Sunday will be Bryant McKinnie against Chandler Jones, and in the first meeting, McKinnie made Jones a complete non-factor in the pass rushing department. The Patriots got a very good pass rush on Tannehill in the second half of the first meeting, and will need another such effort this week if they are to be successful.
Opponents are having their way lately against the Pats secondary and a key player to watch this week is Charles Clay. While thereâ€™s nothing flashy about Clay, he brings a lot to the table as the TE, H-back and even as the fullback, seamlessly switching to each as needed. Last week Browns TE Jordan Cameron torched New Englandâ€™s linebackers and the Dolphins will be looking to do the same.
Special Teams-Â Edge Patriots
The Patriots are getting a fantastic, All-Pro season from K Stephen Gostkowski who has been money on his field goals, as well as kickoffs and now can add onside kicks to his resume. He gets the nod of Miami K Caleb Sturgis who has battled inconsistency and missed two kicks last week.
Both teamâ€™s punters and coverage units have been solid and this game may come down to a big return. Miami uses Marcus Thigpen for both punt and kick returns and heâ€™s done a good job. The Patriots counter with Julian Edelman on punts and rookie Josh Boyce who has been put into the kick return game and with his excellent speed, has injected some life into the return game.
Patriots Player to Watch-Â Chandler Jones
The last time the two teams met, the Dolphins were reeling and having issues protecting Tannehill and had just brought in Bryant McKinnie from the Ravens. And at the time we thought Jones would have a big advantage over McKinnie but the 34 year old LT flipped the scales on Jones and dominated.
The Patriots had entered that game with the intent on pressuring Tannehill without having to bring extra pass rushers. This weekâ€™s game will no doubt feature much of the same game planning.
Bill Belichick always states that pass defense is equally consisting of pass coverage and quarterback pressure. This week, facing a Dolphins team hungry for a playoff spot, theyâ€™ll need their best pass rusher to step up to the plate.
Prediction: Patriots 24-21