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Patriots Look For 10th AFC East Title Under Belichick on Sunday vs. Dolphins

Tom Brady vs. The Dolphins

Tom Brady and the Patriots travel to Miami on Sunday for a showdown with the Dolphins, a game that could wrap up the AFC East for New England.  On the surface, this would appear to be a classic trap game.  With Houston (10-1, 1st in the AFC) and San Francisco (8-2-1, 1st in the NFC West) looming in the coming weeks, it could be tempting for the Patriots to look past their division rival, especially considering this is one of the youngest teams in recent Pats history.  But Bill Belichick places an extraordinary emphasis not only on division games, but opportunities to wrap up milestone victories.  He won’t let his players overlook the importance of Sunday’s matchup.

Regardless, Miami has historically been a difficult place for the Pats to play.  Division games are always unpredictable, and whether it’s the humidity, the individual matchups, or some combination of both, the Dolphins typically bring their “A” Game whenever hosting the Patriots at Sun Life Stadium.

By The Numbers

New England Miami
Record 8-3 (1st in AFCE) 5-6 (2nd in AFCE)
Points/G 37.0 (1st) 19.2 (26th)
Points All./G 22.2 (13th) 20.5 (T-9th)
Rush Yds/G 143.7 (6th) 108.9 (16th)
Rush Yds All./G 100.8 (10th) 96.7 (7th)
Pass Yds/G 292.1 (4th) 212.4 (22nd)
Pass Yds All./G 289.4 (29th) 261.7 (26th)
Takeaways 32 (2nd) 11 (T-28th)
Giveaways 8 (1st) 21 (T-24th)
TO Diff. 24 (1st) -10 (28th)

Patriots Offense vs. Dolphins Defense

New England’s juggernaut offense showed no signs of slowing down against the Jets in week 12, even without the services of Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, and Rob Gronkowski.  The Dolphins should provide a marginal step up in difficulty however, boasting a top ten defense in points allowed per game.  The strength of their defense is up front, led by all around talent Karlos Dansby and disruptive pass rusher Cameron Wake, whose 9.5 sacks ranks 5th in the NFL.  Wake, who also has a sack in four of his six games against the Patriots, will provide a much tougher test for Right Tackle Marcus Cannon should he have to fill in for Vollmer for the second consecutive week.

The Patriots running game will be tested as well, facing Miami’s 7th ranked run defense.  The Dolphins allow only 3.7 yards per rushing attempt, and have surrendered only 4 touchdowns on the ground all season.  In these situations, the Patriots often utilize Danny Woodhead a bit more, trying to find favorable matchups in the passing game rather than pound their heads against the wall of a good run defense.  Shane Vereen could fill a similar role, as he’s beginning to find his niche within the team in his second season.

Dolphins Offense vs. Patriots Defense

Ryan Tannehill flew under the radar during the 2012 NFL Draft due to the hysteria surrounding Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.  His stats don’t show it, but Tannehill is quietly putting together a promising rookie season despite a severe lack of explosive weapons.  Davone Bess is a serviceable slot receiver, and Brian Hartline has already set his career high for receptions with 55 through 11 games, but neither will ever be confused for a top flight receiver.

The Patriots defense has been susceptible against the Tight End, but neither of Miami’s options there are stellar.  Anthony Fasano has had big games against the Pats in prior games, but he’s been limited in practice this week and at best won’t be 100% on Sunday.

Miami’s best weapon for this game is certainly Reggie Bush, who’s a threat in both the running and passing game.  After a strong start to the season, the Patriots run defense has looked vulnerable in recent games, allowing over 4.9 yards per rush in their three games since the bye week.  Bush’s elusiveness could create a problem on the edges, where the Pats will be missing suspended defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, and could be without star rookie Chandler Jones for the second game due to an ankle injury.  The return of a healthy Patrick Chung could help here if the Pats can afford to play him in the box.

X-Factors

-        One of the most lopsided statistics heading into this game is the turnover differential.  New England ranks 1st in the NFL with a +24 ratio, while Miami ranks 28th at -10.

-        WR Julian Edelman has been practicing all week, but it remains to be seen how lingering the effects of his concussion might be.  Without Edelman, the Pats are not only down to two proven wide receivers, but will be without their most dynamic punt returner.

-        In the past, Vince Wilfork has lined up at DE against the Dolphins to give the Pats a more favorable matchup against LT Jake Long.  With the potential absence of Jones and Cunningham, we may see that again Sunday, with Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick taking over the additional interior snaps on early downs.

Prediction

Even if they reverse the trend and manage to win the turnover battle, Miami lacks the explosiveness on offense to make the Patriots pay for those mistakes.  The Dolphins will use their home field advantage to keep the game close early, but a second half surge will see the Patriots win comfortably.

Patriots 31, Dolphins 17.

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