The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East over the past two decades, and locked up their 11th straight division title by beating the Buffalo Bills last week. Despite their unprecedented run of success, however, they have not swept their three rivals since going 6-0 against them in 2012. On Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, New England could repeat the feat and in turn lock up a first-round bye for the playoffs.
Before that could happen, the team will need to win its matchups — and the following four could have a big impact on the game’s outcome:
Stephon Gilmore vs DeVante Parker
When the Patriots beat the Dolphins with a final score of 43-0 in Week 2, Stephon Gilmore was arguably their best player on either side of the ball: the All-Pro cornerback shut down Miami’s number one wide receiver, DeVante Parker, from start to finish and did not allow a single reception on five targets while also registering an interception. Parker, meanwhile, finished the game with zero receptions even when going against New England’s other defensive backs.
Since then, however, the 26-year-old wideout hit his groove and has produced a solid season despite being the number one priority for each defense that plays the Dolphins. Entering Week 17, he has 64 receptions for 1,065 yards and nine touchdowns on his résumé — clearly leading Miami in all three categories. Of course, this also means one thing: to stop Miami’s aerial attack one needs to find a way to stop DeVante Parker.
Enter Stephon Gilmore, whose performance against Parker in Week 2 was no flash in the pan: week-in and week-out, the 29-year-old has erased opposing wide receivers from the equation and if he can do the same on Sunday, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will have a hard time consistently moving the football down the field.
N’Keal Harry vs Nik Needham
There is no denying it, the Dolphins defense is bad: it surrenders a league-worst 29.7 points per game. The Patriots — despite playing some inconsistent offensive football themselves recently — should therefore be able to find success against the unit and generate some more positive momentum heading towards the postseason after already looking strong during last week’s game against the Bills’ second-ranked scoring defense.
The matchups across the board seem to favor New England, but one in particular could be intriguing when it comes to Sunday’s game: first-round rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry against another rookie, Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham. Needham, who did not hear his name called in April and only joined Miami as a free agent, has had his fair share of growing pains this season but is nevertheless expected to play considerable snaps against the Patriots.
Seeing him line up on the other side of the Patriots’ most talented outside receiver would not be a surprise. Based on talent alone, Harry should win his battles again the UTEP project but how he looks could still go a long way towards determining who wins Sunday’s game: New England will likely try to get its first-round pick involved quite a bit with the postseason on the horizon, and if he cannot consistently create positive plays it could hurt New England’s offense.
Patrick Chung vs Mike Gesicki
If DeVante Parker’s day looks like the one he had in September against New England, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will likely try to spread the football around to his other receiving weapons — and the most dangerous of which might very well be tight end Mike Gesicki, who is producing some solid numbers in his second year in the league: Gesicki has caught 47 passes for 536 yards and four touchdowns while essentially serving as Miami’s number two receiver.
While the Patriots could opt to use a cornerback on him, the most realistic scenario is the team going with strong safety Patrick Chung in man coverage. The veteran has had his ups and downs this season, but is still the team’s best bet against opposing tight ends like Gesicki. That being said, Fitzpatrick will likely not shy away from trying to get the football in the hands of his 6-foot-6 target — one that caught two touchdowns just last week.
Chung needs to be on top of his game to consistently challenge Gesicki one-on-one, and whoever wins this battle could decide who wins Sunday’s game. The Patriots, of course, are still favored given their depth elsewhere but Miami’s tight end certainly brings considerable big-play potential to the table.
New England’s linebackers vs Patrick Laird
Gesicki is not the only offensive player worth keeping an eye on on Sunday: undrafted rookie running back Patrick Laird has also carved out a nice role in Miami’s offensive attack over the last few weeks. With Kalen Ballage on injured reserve, Kenyan Drake in Arizona, and Mark Walton released after a recent arrest, Laird has taken over as the team’s lead back and produced some solid albeit unspectacular numbers.
Since receiving a regular role on offense in Week 10, Laird has carried the football 51 times for 147 yards and a touchdown. He also has caught 19 passes for an additional 156 yards. While not to be confused with dual-threat running backs such as the Patriots’ own James White and Rex Burkhead, the youngster still has some potential to challenge defenses as a ball-carrier and a receiver out of the backfield — something the Patriots have to stop.
New England’s linebackers will therefore play a big role against Laird: move-linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins in particular will be matched up against the rookie either when it comes to filling gaps in the running game, or covering him one-on-one. If they can successfully do both, Miami’s offense will have an even harder time to consistently move the football down the field and string positive plays together.