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The Patriots’ three-step plan to beat the Dolphins in Week 18

Related: Patriots vs. Dolphins preview: How New England’s offense will find success in Week 18

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots will be playing to get the top wild card playoff spot, and perhaps a long-shot to take the division outright, when they square off against the Miami Dolphins in Week 18. The team could see itself as high as the No. 2 seed in the AFC and as low as the No. 7. It does find themselves in an uphill battle for the division due to not taking care of business back in Week 1, despite having the game all but won.

However that is in the past, and the focus for the Patriots is making sure they take care of the Dolphins this week. Leading up to Week 1, I posted this as the game plan for the Patriots to defeat the Dolphins. 17 weeks later, the plan has not changed much.

The Dolphins have the same weaknesses as we thought they had in Week 1, although they have a much more potent passing game with rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle starting to make a huge impact. New England has improved a bit since the two teams’ first meeting, while the Dolphins more or less have the same strengths and weaknesses as last season.

No. 1: Limit the turnovers on offense

The Patriots struggled with turnovers in the first game, including one with under four minutes to go and the team driving inside the Miami 10-yard line. The Patriots execute their offense at a solid level, but certainly don’t have the horses to put fear into opposing defenses. Turnovers can be game-altering plays for them.

The Dolphins force takeaways at a slightly higher rate (12.0%) than the league average (11.6%) and are capable of capitalizing on offensive mistakes. While the Patriots have been good at taking care of the ball in their 10 wins this season, they turn the ball over at roughly a league average rate (11.5%).

No. 2: Attack mismatches vs. linebackers and safeties

The Dolphins have two terrific outside cornerbacks in Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, but that’s not where the Patriots will want to do their damage anyway; their top boundary targets are going to struggle to get open. However, I think there will be opportunities against the other guys, especially if the Patriots can isolate Miami’s linebackers and safeties in man coverage against their tight ends and running backs.

The problem is that isn’t so easy as I expect the Dolphins to try to take away the middle of the field. Perhaps the solution may be to attack them with atypical formations that have players like Hunter Henry isolated to one side of the field to try to force the defense to get out of its comfort zone. If New England can do that, the passing game could get some traction.

No. 3: Take away the deep shots to Parker and Waddle

The Dolphins have enough weapons to give the Patriots some fits defensively, with jump balls to 6-foot-5 wide receiver DeVante Parker and speedster Jaylen Waddle as their top-two. Parker is a tough one-on-one match-up because of his ability to gobble up contested passes on the outside. At the same time, the Patriots have to guard against deep shots to Waddle.

Waddle is faster than any of the Patriots’ corners, so they will need to respect his speed with double teams and two-deep coverage shells. Forcing the Dolphins to have to slowly move the ball may be the best bet to get this opportunistic defense chances to make a stop and/or force a turnover.

X-Factors: RB Rhamondre Stevenson, CB Myles Bryant

Stevenson and Bryant will be critical players on their respective sides of the ball. With Damien Harris as a game-time decision due to a hamstring injury, I expect Rhamondre Stevenson to have a more extended workload in case Harris cannot go or will be limited.

Stevenson is coming off a career-high 107 yards and a touchdown against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. The Dolphins defense is tough against the pass, but can be a bit vulnerable against the run. If the offensive line can open up holes, I could see Stevenson putting up a big game.

On the defensive side of the ball, I expect Myles Bryant to get a lot of snaps as the underneath defender guarding Waddle. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put the Tyreek Hill defense on this draft’s sixth overall selection, so it is possible that Bryant and/or Devin McCourty will be tasked towards making the Dolphins defense have to execute 10-plus-play drives to get points.

Score prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17

I expect a defensive struggle early, but the Patriots’ running game will eventually take its toll on the Dolphins at the end of the game. Rhamondre Stevenson picks up his fourth 100-yard game of the season in this one and the Patriots are able to pull away late to secure their 11th win of the season.