15 games down with just one to go and given the Pats' success in recent years, it's kind of tough to fathom how it could be so important.
As we know, of course, the Pats are 11-4 and in the playoffs, having clinched that chance a few weeks ago. But with the Miami Dolphins (the same team against whom the Pats closed out the AFC East back in Week 13) coming to Foxborough to close out the regular season this Sunday afternoon, the Pats have a chance to earn themselves a much needed first-round bye against their long-time AFC East rivals. All they need to do is win and get a little bit of help.
The Pats gave up control of their playoff destiny a couple of weeks ago when their huge comeback against the 49ers fell short. But if they beat the Dolphins on the heels of a Colts victory over the Texans and/or a (gulp) Chiefs win over the Broncos, next weekend will will be comprised of some seriously important couch time, something more than a handful of this team's walking wounded could really use. Of course, if Houston beats Indy then the Pats, who were a bit lucky to get their game flexed to a 4:25 start, will be totally reliant on Kansas City to still get a week off which means get ready for some Wild Card Weekend football.
But first thing's first - here are the Dolphins again and boy did they make the Pats sweat in their first meeting and not just because it was really hot down in Miami. The Dolphins have a very physical defense that knows how get under the skin of both the Pats' offensive line and Tom Brady himself. That Week 13 game, a 23-16 tractor pull which required a dominant, late-game, ground-driven march to salt away the win was, probably not coincidentally, the week that began the recent spate of Brady getting beaten up and his line having a tough time stopping that from happening. The best defenses against Brady over the years have been the ones that can get pressure on him without blitzing or sending extra rushers and back in Week 13, that's exactly what the Miami D did.
Still, just because the Dolphins' defense played a great game in that one doesn't mean they will on Sunday. Miami never plays well in Gillette Stadium, especially when it's cold out. The Dolphins' season is over and while it would be a stretch to expect them to simply roll over, it would be equally as tough to imagine them putting forth the same, top shelf effort they did a few weeks ago when they were playing at home and the possibility of a playoff berth still existed.
That being said, this is not likely a match up the Pats are looking forward to, especially considering how battered the O-line and the offense as a whole both are at the moment. If the Jaguars and their non-existent pass rush can give Brady and company the kind of protection problems they did last week, Cameron Wake and his mates up front must be looking at this game as a chance to end the season on a very positive note.
So with that, let's get into this, the regular season finale.
When the Pats pass the ball.
The Pats have started very slowly the past two weeks after nearly blowing up the scoreboard in the early stages of their big win over Houston three weeks ago. You can bet that whatever the circumstances of their playoff positioning when this game kicks off are, Bill Belichick will want to see his team come out strong and fast.
That said, the offense will be in high-octane mode from the get-go which means we'll get an early look at how the pass protection holds up in the face of Miami's front seven. Wake, who is one of the best pass rushers in the league, rolled up 1.5 of the Dolphins' four sacks in the first meeting and drilled Brady three other times. Sebastian Vollmer, who was dealing with a bad back that day, got his lunch money taken by Wake more than once and has to be better than he was in that game as well as last week against Jacksonville, when it looked a couple of times like he was trying to cut his man but couldn't get low enough to do it. The interior of the Pats' line looked much different in Miami than it will on Sunday as both Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly were out that day. Neither has looked terrific since, especially Connolly, who has been abused few times the past two weeks. The O-line is not only the biggest key to the Pats' passing game this week, it may be the biggest key to the game, period.
Should Brady have time to throw, he'll be seeing the same big, physical secondary that pretty much limited the pass offense to just Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez in the last meeting. Brandon Lloyd, who has since come on very strong, had one catch for 10 yards in that game and Brady only threw to him the one time. Lloyd will need to overcome some of the issues that plagued him that week as well as the communication problems that even still, 15 games into the season, are coming between him and Brady from time to time, especially given Hernandez's poor health, which looked almost as bad last week as it did against Seattle and the Jets in October.
If Rob Gronkowski plays and is at or near 100 percent, that changes everything. Not only will Gronk's presence toughen up the pass offense and add his usual match up nightmare dimension all over the field, it will help the O-line too. Gronk, in case you forgot, is also a tremendous blocker. Whether he's active won't be decided until closer to game time however, which means that this match up hinges on the O-line's ability to protect Brady and Lloyd playing a sufficient role alongside Welker, especially if Hernandez continues to look less than himself.
It's not a lock by any stretch that those scenarios will play out, but it's still a fairly safe bet.
When the Dolphins pass the ball.
Miami's rookie QB Ryan Tannehill really struggled in the first meeting, completing less that 50 percent of his passes at just 6.4 yards per attempt, failing to throw a TD and taking three sacks while losing one big fumble. He also missed a wide open receiver down the field more than once thanks to some of the Pats' patented blown coverages and in a game in which the final margin was just seven points, that was a big deal.
This week could be a little bit better for him if the Pats' secondary isn't any healthier. Both of their starting corners, Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib, have been at practice all week but that doesn't mean either of them will play or be effective if they do. With Dennard out and Talib limping badly last week, Devin McCourty returned to corner and Kyle Arrington moved back outside and the result was one of Jacksonville's best offensive performances of the season.
The key here is Talib. The Pats can live with Arrington on the outside against a team with limited weapons in its passing game like the Dolphins. But McCourty needs to be back at safety not just because it's his best position or because having to move from one spot to another on a week to week basis is extremely difficult, but because the less Patrick Chung plays, the better it is for this entire defense as a whole.
The defense's fortunes changed drastically when Talib arrived in November which means that it wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea to sit him this week, even if his injured hip is feeling a little bit better. He shouldn't have even been dressed last week and if the Pats don't have him at optimal health come their first playoff game, whether it's this week or next, they will be the worse for it.
Tannehill has been pretty good since losing to the Pats the first time around. He's completed 60.5 percent of his passes over his last three games for 500 yards, five TDs and zero picks. Not only will it be incumbent on the Pats' secondary, however comprised, to force him into his first INT since week 12, it would be very helpful for the Pats to get some pressure on him as well. No one got anywhere near Jacksonville's Chad Henne last week until well into the second half, but once the pressure started coming more effectively and consistently, Henne threw three picks.
This is a match up the Pats can win if they are healthy and playing the way they did over the course of most of their seven game winning streak. We'll see if either of those conditions turn out come Sunday.
When the Pats run the ball.
This match up decided the game the first time around. Stevan Ridley never got going in the first half of that game mostly because the game plan didn't allow him to. He carried just seven times for 11 yards in that first half. But in the fourth quarter of a one-score game, the Pats finally went to the run and subsequently crammed the ball and the game right down the Dolphins' throats.
With the score 20-13, they proceeded to embark on a 16-play, 77-yard drive that took 7:18 off the clock and settled any doubts as to whether or not the Pats had it in them to win a smashmouth game played in the trenches. Ridley carried 11 times for 46 yards on the drive which was so deliberate and exacting, it took the air right out of the Dolphins. Most of the runs were the exact same call or two, which prompted one idiot Dolphin to proclaim that the Pats had disrespected him and his teammates by having the temerity to run the same play over and over again. Hey smart guy? Why don't you stop it once or twice if you feel "disrespected?"
The point is that the Pats can move the ball on the ground against the Dolphins' defense. They've shown it. And with the O-line banged up and in a bit of a slump combined with a fearsome pass rush coming to town, it makes sense to assume that the running game will be more of a point of emphasis earlier on than it was back in Week 13. Ridley looked very solid last week coming off of his string of three fumbles in two games and a second half benching against the 49ers. Give him the ball 20-plus times.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 13
This is sort of a tough one to handicap given the potential ramifications of the Houston/Indy game. Obviously, the circumstances change a lot for the Pats should the Texans win; Denver is almost certainly not going to lose to the Chiefs at home which means that while the Pats still could get that bye even with a Houston win, the chances of that happening are decidedly smaller. That being said, the Dolphins, despite the opportunity to finish at .500 with a win here (which would be a pretty remarkable achievement) and their general familiarity with the Pats, are an inferior team which again, rarely, if ever, plays well up here when it's cold outside. This is the final playoff tuneup for the Pats and while they are younger as a group than any team Belichick has ever coached, that shouldn't mean they're unaware of what's at stake in the coming weeks. This season has proven that momentum from one week to the next is fleeting, as the Pats (or the 49ers or Texans) will have you know. But playing well and entering the postseason on a positive note are still very important, bye week or no bye week. You can bet this has been an overriding message down at Pats' headquarters all week and it will pay off come Sunday.