Two weeks ago, the New England Patriots played the Miami Dolphins in the two team's first meeting of the season. While the Patriots won the matchup rather decisively with a final score of 35-17 both teams look rather different today when compared to their game in late November – changes that could very well make the contest closer than the one played in Foxboro.
Let's take a look at five of the most noteworthy differences when compared to two weeks ago:
No Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots
In the first meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins, Rob Gronkowski was his usual impressive self as a blocker and a pass catcher. The NFL's best tight end, who played 64 of 70 offensive snaps, caught five passes for 82 yards and a pair of touchdow while helping New England's running game gain almost 200 yards. However, he will serve a one-game suspension tonight after a cheap shot against the Buffalo Bills last week. Naturally, a big loss for the Patriots.
Jay Cutler will start at quarterback for Miami
On November 26, Matt Moore served as the Dolphins' quarterback as nominal starter Jay Cutler missed the game in New England due to a concussion. Moore, who started two games so far this year and lost them both, was underwhelming and under pressure all game long. Now, Cutler is back and expected to give Miami's offense a much-needed spark – but don't necessarily count on it: The team still only scores 19.2 points a game with the veteran at the helm.
The Dolphins' leading rusher from two weeks ago is out
Trailing for all but the first seven plays of the first game versus the Patriots, Miami was forced to turn to its passing attack early. As a result, the team's running backs saw only 17 carries and gained 58 yards in the process. The player who gained the majority of that yardage – 38 yards on eight carries – will miss tonight's game: Damien Williams is dealing with a shoulder injury and has already been declared out.
New England will have less depth on the defensive edge
The Patriots' pass rush had its most productive game of the season two weeks ago as the above-mentioned moore was sacked seven times. However, New England will miss two players responsible for three of those sacks: Trey Flowers was tied for the team-lead with two quarterback takedowns, Kyle Van Noy was credited with one. The duo will not suit up tonight, courtesy of a shoulder injury (Flowers) and a calf issue (Van Noy). Consequently, the Patriots will be relatively light on the defensive edge.
Starting cornerback Cordrea Tankersley will not play
Miami's defense gave up only 221 net passing yards to the Patriots' potent aerial attack – although New England's run-heavy game plan certainly contributed to that number. It would not be a surprise to see offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels drew up a similar plan for tonight's game, but if the team opts to pass it will do so against a secondary that will miss one of its starters: Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, who played all but for snaps two weeks ago, is doubtful to play due to ankle and shoulder injuries.
David Andrews is back
The Patriots' first meeting with the Dolphins was as close to a complete game as the team played all year long – despite starting backups at two of the five offensive line positions. While starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is still out, starting center David Andrews will be back tonight. The team captain, who suffered from an illness two weeks ago, saw Ted Karras step in as a starter. And while the second-year pro did a fine job, Andrews is one of the NFL's top young centers and an upgrade at the position.
While both the Patriots and the Dolphins closely resemble the teams that met two weeks ago, the changes above could potentially play a big role in how the two AFC East foes approach the contest. Whether the outcome will look different as well remains to be seen; New England – despite missing some core players on offense, defense and special teams – is still the heavy favorite, though.