December is upon us and that means it's time for the Patriots to begin their annual run of what Tedy Bruschi so aptly named "hat and t-shirt games."
That's right. On Sunday, which will be just the second day of the last month of the year, the Pats can clinch yet another AFC East title, their 10th since 2001. All that stands in their way is the team that for the moment, looks like the most promising of the Pats' three division rivals, the Miami Dolphins.
If you watched the tremendous HBO series "Hard Knocks" this past summer, you got a first hand look at the Dolphins in training camp and their first under coach Joe Philbin in his inaugural season on South Beach. What you witnessed was a long suffering organization, a team in disarray bereft of stars minus one or two here or there, lacking in talent, set to start a rookie at quarterback and being led by a new head coach with no track record. In other words, the Dolphins, from the looks of that show, figured to be lucky to win three games this year.
They did wind up winning in Week 2 but after two excruciating overtime defeats in Weeks 3 and 4 (both games they absolutely should have won), the idea that a 2-14 or 3-13 season was staring them straight in the eye felt like even less of a long shot.
Miami was then able to turn things around somewhat, winning three in a row behind a stout, veteran defense and some surprisingly strong play from that rookie QB, Ryan Tannehill, to creep over the .500 threshold. The Dolphins fell back to earth with a thud following that streak, dropping their next three games and escaping a fourth straight last week thanks in no small part to a horrendous call on their opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, that resulted in a 14-point swing and a 24-21 victory.
Now 5-6, Miami can put the Pats' division title hopes on hold for another week when they host New England at Sun Life Stadium, where Tom Brady has just a 5-5 record over his career and has needed wins in each of the past two seasons just to get to that point. The Pats are on a serious roll right now, having won five in a row and averaging 41.8 points per game over that stretch, 47.5 in their last four. They've also shored things up on defense over the course of the past two weeks and are lapping the field in turnover ratio, currently at +24 on the year. The Giants and Bears are tied for second in that category at +13 each.
Despite these two teams trending in opposite directions, there are still a handful of match ups in this game that bear watching. The Pats could be in danger of this one becoming a trap, with huge games against Houston and San Francisco in the next two weeks and the heat and humidity could play a role as well. So with that, let's get into this week's game preview.
When the Dolphins pass the ball.
Tannehill, while not lighting then NFL world on fire a la Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, has still played fairly well in the first season as a pro, sometimes very well. The Pats, despite the obvious improvements shown against the Colts and Jets in their previous two games, are still most vulnerable on defense against the pass.
Something's gotta give and the guess here is that it will be Tannehill. The Dolphins have one real weapon on offense and that's running back Reggie Bush. Bill Belichick coached defenses specialize in such scenarios, eliminating opponents' biggest threats and making someone else beat them.
They did it to the Cardinals earlier in the season, holding all-world receiver Larry Fitzgerald to one catch for four yards. Against the Colts with Luck under center, the Pats were able to keep his favorite target, Reggie Wayne, mostly quiet, holding him to a non-threatening seven grabs for 72 yards at a time he was leading the league in receiving.
Tannehill will want to get Bush involved both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. Last week against Seattle, the Dolphins ran the ball at 6.8 yards a pop which in turn freed up Tannehill to post his best statistical game in weeks (18-of-26, 253 yards, 9.7 yards per attempt, 97.1 passer rating). That's the kind of game the Dolphins offense (19.2 points per game, 26th in the league) needs to play if it wants to have any chance in this one.
The Pats haven't been as effective against the run in recent weeks, something that can't have gone unnoticed by Belichick and staff, especially with this game next on the schedule. If the Pats can make Tannehill have to throw a lot to keep Miami in it, they will have a big edge. He's 0-5 this season when throwing 35 times or more.
There are no Waynes or Fitzgeralds or even Steve Johnsons for the Pats' secondary to contend with in this game. Devin McCourty has settled things down in the back with his move to safety, Steve Gregory has played terrific the past two weeks and Alfonzo Dennard has the makings of a solid corner opposite Aqib Talib. If the Pats' D, which will be short-handed up front thanks to Chandler Jones' injury and Jermaine Cunningham's suspension, can force Tannehill to have to beat them, this group should continue to show signs of progress.
When the Dolphins run the ball.
Again, the Dolphins have to be able to run the ball and control the clock if they want to win this game. If Bush and Daniel Thomas, who has become Miami's go-to guy at the goal line, are stopped and Tannehill has to throw 40-50 times to keep his team in the game, this one will be over fast.
The Dolphins' offensive line is solid, led by center Mike Pouncey, who Belichick lauded earlier in the week. They also have a former No. 1 overall pick at left tackle in Jake Long and a legit (borderline dirty) tough guy at left guard in Richie Incognito. Vince Wilfork will be able to hold his own in the middle against Pouncey and Incognito. But what about on the edges, where they are thinner thanks to Jones and Cunningham being out?
This could be a big game for linebackers Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower. Spikes is the Pats' best run stopper other than Wilfork and a good deal of this defense's success the past two weeks has come with him aggressively attacking the line of scrimmage in both running and passing situations. Hightower, who has struggled in coverage, may be asked to play down more due to the issues on the defensive line and because his size and strength could come in very handy when Miami runs it.
The Pats haven't looked the same against the run since the bye week and the Dolphins may be banking on that come Sunday. Bush is averaging well over four yards per rushing attempt on the year but has been a bit susceptible to coughing up the ball, having lost three fumbles. You can bet Belichick has drilled both of those stats into his defense's collective head. This is the match up that could very well decide the game. The Pats should be prepared.
When the Patriots run the ball.
Here's where the Dolphins' defense is at its best. They are seventh in the league against the run, holding opponents to 96.7 yards per game. Miami wants to slow the game down while the Pats of course want to speed it up. Slowing down the run, if not stopping it altogether, is how they do that.
The Pats, meanwhile, have been running well all season. They are sixth in the league in rushing with over 140 yards per game and now have two backs in Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen capable of putting up big numbers.
Despite their strength in defending the run, the Dolphins could look to change things up from how they usually play in an attempt to keep this one from turning into a shootout. Miami is 26th against the pass and although the Dolphins have a stud pass rusher in Cameron Wake and a couple of very good coverage linebackers in Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, they are in big trouble if they can't get to the QB, as are most teams who play the Pats.
The Dolphins may just stick to what they're good at by playing the run as usual and trying to get the Pats into as many 3rd and long situations as possible before unleashing their pass rush. The Pats have proven more than capable of handling players like Wake all year, even with all of the injuries to their offensive line. Two weeks ago, facing long time nemeses Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis of the Colts, Brady was kept almost entirely clean and after the Jets game on Thanksgiving, he probably didn't even have to put his jersey in the laundry.
This may be the only area of the game in which the Dolphins truly have an edge over the Pats. Their best shot to win is to try to control the tempo and keep Brady and the Pats' offense off the field. That involves running the ball and stopping the run. Look for them to come out tough against Ridley and Vereen, especially early.
Prediction: Patriots 41, Dolphins 20
One of these weeks (hopefully, for their sake, prior to the playoffs) the Pats are going to have to play in a slowed down, more defensively oriented game. That's not going to happen this week, as much as the Dolphins will try to make it so. They are a team of plodders, an old-school outfit that's its best when they are running the ball, stopping the run, and just basically trying to turn the game into a tractor pull. The Patriots, of course, play the exact opposite of that style and while it would be nice to see them win a game in the teens or 20s, they simply have too much firepower for the Dolphins to handle. Don't be surprised to see the Pats in a game like that in two weeks when the 49ers and their incredible defense come to Foxborough. This week, while it wouldn't be a stretch to assume the Dolphins will hang around for a bit, the end result should look more like what we've gotten used to seeing from the Pats over the course of the current win streak.
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