This weekend the New England Patriots have the opportunity to clinch the AFC East with a win over the Miami Dolphins, while the Dolphins have the opportunity to make themselves serious contenders in the hunt for an AFC wildcard spot. So what can we expect to happen in south Florida on Sunday afternoon?
The Patriots ride a five game winning streak into the contest and are fresh off of a Thanksgiving blowout win over the New York Jets. The Dolphins are coming off of a solid performance in beating the Seahawks, after previously dropping three straight games. Yet the Dolphins find themselves at 5-6, just a game out of the second wildcard spot. And with this being a divisional contest, we can expect that the two team’s familiarity with one anther will help offset what is a noticeable difference in talent level between the two teams. The Dolphins enter the contest much healthier than the Patriots, who are looking like the walking wounded on offensive line and on the defensive line, and Jermaine Cunningham’s four game suspension for performance enhancers thins the depth at defensive line even more.
When the Patriots run
The Patriots have the sixth ranked rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 143.7 yards per game, but the Dolphins have a solid run defense, giving up just 96.7 yards over game, seventh in the NFL. Miami only gave up 96 yards on the ground to the Seahawks, so don’t look for the Patriots to line up and try to run the ball down the defense’s throat. Instead, look for the Patriots to utilize the spread formation to run, and to find opportunities to run Stevan Ridley (939 yards) and Shane Vereen (159 yards) off of passing situations. The biggest damage that the Patriots’ backs may do is by taking short passes out of the backfield, but the Patriots should end up with somewhere near 130 yards on the ground Sunday.
When the Patriots pass
This is where the game may well be determined. The Patriots possess the league’s top passing attack, averaging over 292 yards per game, while the porous pass defense (26th in NFL) is giving up over 261 yards per game. Even worse for the Dolphins, while Cameron Wake is having a great year with 9.5 sacks, the Dolphins generally have to blitz to apply pressure to the quarterback. This creates mismatches that will favor the Patriots’ short passing attack, and you can expect New England to carve up the field. The Patriots, even with a banged up offensive line, have done an excellent job of protecting Brady and making pass rushes disappear, and the Dolphins cannot win this game without applying consistent pressure to Brady and taking him out of his rhythm. Look for Brady to pass the 300 yard mark on Sunday, and for the Patriots receiving group to have a big day. The Dolphins’ secondary, depleted by injuries all season, is simply not up to the task of containing the Patriots’ attack.
When the Dolphins run
The Dolphins ran for 189 yards last week against the Seahawks, and rank 16th in the league with an average of 108.9 yards per game this season. The strength of the Patriots’ defense however, is against the run, where the Patriots rank 10th, giving up 100.8 yards per game. Reggie Bush has been a feast or famine back this year (mostly famine), while Daniel Thomas has emerged as a solid companion back. The Patriots are vulnerable on the defensive front, but still have Vince Wilfork stuffing the middle of the line, forcing backs into the waiting arms of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont’a Hightower. The Dolphins are likely to run for 110-120 yards, but not necessarily be able to run consistently to maintain drives.
When the Dolphins pass
Miami has only the league’s 22nd ranked pass offense (212.4 ypg) and the Dolphins have been prone to turning the ball over this season, while the Patriots are masters at baiting quarterbacks to make unwise throws. Ryan Tannnehill is having a good rookie year as the ‘Fins signal caller, with a 59% completion rating and a 72.9 passer rating, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but it’s the last number that creates a problem for the Dolphins. For all of the yards the Patriots may give up through the air (29th, 289.4 ypg), those yards don’t always convert to points, and the Patriots have a knack for forcing turnovers. While I expect Tannehill to throw for 300 yards in this game, turnovers will offset some of this production, and some of it is likely to come after the game is already decided. Davone Bess has emerged as a solid if not spectacular receiver for the Dolphins (55 receptions). Brian Hartline also has 55 receptions. Anthony Fasano is the Dolphins next option, but he is dealing with an injury and may or may not see much action in this game. Fullback Charles Clay had a big receiving day against the Seahawks, and needs to be accounted for. Meanwhile, the Patriots are getting healthier in their secondary, and the move of Devin McCourty seems to be paying dividends. With Steve Gregory now emerging as a play-maker and with a pass rush that is improving in step with the secondary, Tannehill could see his day undone with a handful of big defensive plays.
Both Dan Carpenter and Stephen Gostkowski are solid kickers for their squads. Brandon Fields gets the edge in the punting game over Zoltan Mesko, though both are effective in pinning teams deep in their own end. Marcus Thigpen is a dangerous kick and punt returner who is capable of returning a kick for a touchdown at any time, but the Patriots also possess dangerous returners in McCourty and Edelman.
The Patriots lead the league with a +24 turnover differential (32 takeaways and 8 giveaways), far better than any other team. The Dolphins are sitting at -10 with only 11 takeaways and 21 giveaways. So many games are decided on turnovers in the league, and the Patriots excel at protecting the ball and taking it away from the other team. Combined with the Patriots’ deadly passing attack, these two factors should be the difference in the game.
This game has the potential to drive Patriots’ fan nuts on Sunday, but I am not expecting that to last very long. The Patriots’ ability to create turnovers, and their history of taking advantage of young quarterbacks suggests that the Patriots will be able to turn the tide of the game through forcing the Dolphins into mistakes. Further, the Patriots surgical passing attack will be able to take advantage of a weak Dolphins’ secondary. The pass will set up the run in this contest, and the Patriots should be able to sustain long drives without needing to take on the Dolphins’ stout run defense in a direct way. Look for match-up advantages to favor Welker, Edelman (if he plays), and Hernandez, and thus set up Ridley and Vereen for runs and screens when the safeties are caught defending the pass. Expect Miami to get some early points in this contest, as has so often been the case in Patriots’ contests so far this season. New England will assert itself in the second quarter through a long scoring drive and, if a turnover or two is forced, look for a lead by half. Expect the second half to be a gutting of the Dolphins’ secondary by Brady and company, with the Patriots pulling away in the fourth quarter. Predicted Score: Patriots 38 Dolphins 20.