After 11 games, the New England Patriots are still on the top spot in the AFC and have jumped to the number 4 spot on the rankings after the Los Angeles Rams lost to the Minnesota Vikings in a battle of Top 5 teams. The Patriots rely on their dominating offense and special teams units to beat their opponents and ask their defense to just be serviceable. With the Patriots defense getting better at preventing points, they’ve been complementary to the best offense in the league and a top 5 special teams unit. That recipe has led to an 8-2 start, which ties the Pittsburgh Steelers for the best record in the AFC.
Offense 75 (1st): The Patriots lead the league in points per drive (2.73), yards per drive (40.62), plays per drive (6.83), the lowest turnover rate (4.9%), and highest percentage of drives that end with a first down or points (77.2%). The offense is somewhat held back by the first half red zone success (53%), although they’ve hit on 6 of their last 9 attempts. When the Patriots move the ball into enemy territory, you can count on points every time they do whether Brady throws a TD pass or Gostkowski nails a field goal attempt. In fact, the offense has more drives where they have scored points than they have not. Even without Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell for all of the year, this may be the most dominant Patriots offense statistically since I started doing this stat collection spreadsheet.
Defense 44 (20th): The defense isn’t good, but it’s getting better. The Patriots have moved to the middle of the pack in points allowed per drive (1.89). The defense will give up yards and teams will convert a couple 3rd downs on the drive, but will force teams to either punt around midfield or settle for FG attempts in the red zone. The score is held down by the the sheer number of yards the defense has given up on a per drive basis, although that number is starting to trend in the right direction as well. With an offense that’s dominant and a special teams unit that gives them the best field position in the NFL, the defense doesn’t have to be good, just serviceable.
Special Teams 67 (4th): Only Detroit, Baltimore, and Dallas have better special teams scores, but the Patriots have a 50 or better score in all components on the Special Teams grade. The Patriots special teams forces the longest fields for their defense this year and is 2nd in field position on kickoffs, forcing their opponents to start on their own 23.2 yard line after the dominant offense scores. Dion Lewis has a kick return TD against the Broncos and the punt return unit is averaging 10.5 yards per punt return. Punt coverage has also improved, although the Patriots rarely punt these days anyway, with guys like Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi stepping up with Matthew Slater battling hamstring issues all season. Due to great special teams play combined with great offensive production, the Patriots will make it very tough to play catch-up.
Schedule 84 (3rd): The Patriots boast the highest schedule grade in the AFC and only the 9-1 Eagles and the 8-2 Saints boast a better schedule grade in the NFL. In an AFC that’s down this season, quality opponents and wins have been tough to come by but the Patriots sit with an above .500 strength of schedule and strength of victory. The Patriots will face their division opponents and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final leg of their schedule, which should test the team’s resolve because division opponents are always tough and the Steelers are the #2 team in the AFC.
Week 12 Opponent: Miami Dolphins
Offense 35 (30th): The Dolphins’ decision to try to avoid Ryan Tannehill getting reconstructive surgery on a partially torn ACL backfired as their top QB has been out since August. They’ve turned to Jay Cutler and Matt Moore to try to lead the offense, but that’s led to a lot of ugly performances. The Dolphins traded their top RB to the Eagles at the deadline, which was a sign they were punting on 2017 in general. The Dolphins offense is not good at scoring points with a paltry 1.38 points per drive and a turnover rate of 14.5%, 3 times the Patriots turnover rate. The Dolphins offense struggles to move the ball, averaging just 25 yards per drive although they’ve figured out how to score in the few red zone opportunities they’ve had. It should be an offense for the Patriots defense to feast on.
Defense 40 (29th): The Dolphins started out OK on defense, but lately they’ve been as effective as wet toilet paper at preventing opponents from reaching the end zone. The Dolphins defense ranks dead last in TD% and 31st in Red Zone efficiency. The Dolphins do present individual match-up problems with edge rusher Cameron Wake still being an effective cog, but their back 7 is open season if Brady has time to throw. The Dolphins are decent at preventing yards, but due to a poor offense and special teams, the defense is left out to dry with starting field position at the 29 yard line (Patriots defense starts at the 24 for comparison).
Special Teams 40 (28th): The Dolphins cover kickoffs and punts fairly well, but that’s about all they do well. Their return game is ineffective, which puts them at a field position disadvantage for the offense. Due to an ineffective offense and return game, that hurts their defense in terms of field position. The Dolphins defense (29.06) starts 2.5 yards closer to the end zone than their offense (26.40). With an ineffective return game and the Patriots being one of the best kick coverage teams in the NFL, the Patriots should be able to win the field position battle rather easily. Expect Stephen Gostkowski to sky kick balls to the goal line on kickoffs and let the coverage guys make tackles inside the Miami 20 yard line.
Schedule 47 (17th): The Dolphins have 4 wins by a total of 14 points, all of them being 1 score games. One of the wins included a GW FG attempt that was pushed wide right against the Chargers, another was the Falcons blowing a 17-0 lead like it’s Super Bowl LI again, and a third was with Matt Cassel playing QB. The Dolphins are bad and play like it, as evidenced by a 4-game losing streak that followed a fluky 4-2 start. The Dolphins have since been in a tailspin, looking worse each week and have no bye week due to Hurricane Irma. It’s possible they’ve phoned it in against other opponents, but I don’t expect them to fold against the Patriots early.
Score Prediction: Patriots 38, Dolphins 17. On paper the Patriots have very advantageous match-ups in coverage on offense and have a very good special teams unit that matches up well against the Dolphins non-existent return game. Games aren’t played on paper, so I expect the Dolphins to play hard early on until the Patriots build a 2-score lead. After that I expect the Dolphins to fold as the lead continues to grow.