Can you remember the first week of the season? The excitement when the Patriots started out well, which quickly fell into panic once the team collapsed in the second half? Do you remember the characters, the stars, the setting?
There's pretty much nothing carried over from the first week of the year. This is basically an entirely new match-up against an entirely different team.
Let's look at the Dolphins roster:
Yes, Ryan Tannehill is still their quarterback. But Knowshon Moreno is injured and Lamar Miller is the team's new running back. Their offensive line is playing just three of their Week 1 starters- noticeably missing their top lineman, left tackle Branden Albert- but they've returned Mike Pouncey at right guard. They've moved their rookie tackle Ja'Wuan James over from the right side to the left. Samson Satele is still at center. Left guard Daryn Colledge has been operating out of a rotation.
At receiver, Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline are still there, picking up their customary 50 yards a game- although Hartline's targets have been cut in half since the early part of the year. Instead, rookie slot receiver Jarvis Landry is turning heads and has been leading the team in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns over the past five weeks. Landry's a new variable that the Patriots need to watch for.
Factor in that tight end Charles Clay is coming off an injury, and the Dolphins are a brand new offense. Wallace hasn't been able to top his 7 receptions, nor his 81 yards that he gained against the Patriots in the opening week. Three of his four lowest outputs have come in the past four weeks. Miller is a strong running back, but he's only topped 60 rushing yards once in his past six games. Miami's offensive line has been playing very poorly.
In other words, the Dolphins week 1 offense was operating at a much higher level than its week 15 version.
To counter the Dolphins offense, the Patriots have a lot of changes on the defensive side of the ball- and hopefully they won't operate out of the misjudged 3-4 front with Chandler Jones at defensive end. Regardless, the defensive line has upgrade, now with a back-in-game-shape Vince Wilfork (he was in his first game since tearing his achilles) and Alan Branch on the roster instead of Joe Vellano. Remember that Vellano played and Chris Jones didn't see a snap in Week 1.
At linebacker, the Patriots will be without Jerod Mayo, but Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins have taken their games to new heights since the opening week- Collins was actually not very good for the first half of the season as he battled a thigh injury. Hopefully Hightower will be available for this match-up.
In the secondary, the Patriots will have Brandon Browner on the field, while Darrelle Revis has returned to peak form after taking some time to adjust. Factor in Pat Chung's growth and the secondary is a whole different animal this time around.
It could easily be argued that the Patriots have improved at all three levels of the defense since Week 1.
The Dolphins defense should look familiar. Their fierce defensive front is still there, with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon putting pressure around the edges and Randy Starks and Jared Odrick pushing up the middle. For whatever reason (and it kind of aligns with the loss of Cortland Finnegan to an ankle injury), the Dolphins rushing defense has been particularly vulnerable as of late- and we'll look into that during our film review.
The linebackers are slightly different as Koa Misi wasn't available in Week 1, but sophomore Jelani Jenkins is still one of the main linebackers on the field. Jenkins started out the season at a high level, but has fallen off as of late.
The secondary will be different. Brent Grimes is still playing great defense, but he'll be the only familiar face at a familiar level. Finnegan has missed the past four weeks with an ankle injury, but is expected to play (probably at a lower level). Safety Louis Delmas tore his ACL last week and is out for the season. Safety Rashad Jones will be playing after being suspended for the first four games of the season.
So the faces up front will be familiar, while those in the second level will be brand new.
The Patriots offense will be playing with a brand new line-up (thank goodness). Tom Brady will be holding it down at quarterback, but the players around him will be different.
Stevan Ridley is out for the year, with LeGarrette Blount returning to hopefully continue the trend of teams running over the Dolphins defense. They'll be running behind an almost entirely remodeled offensive line. Nate Solder has regressed in recent weeks, but it's back to a level that he was playing in the opening weeks (hooray consistency!), but everyone else will be different.
Dan Connolly played center and will now be left guard. Bryan Stork will be the new center. Ryan Wendell will be the new right guard. Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey will not be on the field. Sebastian Vollmer will be the right tackle, as he was in Week 1, but like Wilfork he was returning from injury; he's an entirely different player right now.
At wide receiver, Julian Edelman has gone from being the only player, to one of a handful of viable targets. Remember that in Week 1, Rob Gronkowski was operating at 10% and saw a team leading 11 targets. He caught 4 for 40 yards. The next highest targets: Edelman (9, 6 receptions, 95 yards), Kenbrell Thompkins (9, 5, 37), Shane Vereen (7, 5, 35), and Brandon LaFell (6, 0, 0). Yes, LaFell had zero receptions on six targets. What are the odds of that happening again?
Now, Edelman is one of the three players on the only team in the league with three 750+ yard receivers. Gronkowski is back in form, while LaFell is an essential part of the offense. Edelman no longer has to carry the team- and that means he can be more effective. Beyond those three, Tim Wright now has more time in the offense, which makes the Patriots a much more effective red zone offense.
Essentially, this is a match-up of two rosters heading in different directions. While the Dolphins are piecing together players after overcoming injuries, the Patriots are staying healthy and getting their players more involved and integrated into both sides of the field.
This game is very different from the version in Week 1. Let's hope the outcome is different, too.