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Patriots Look to Keep Bye Week Hopes Alive vs. Miami Dolphins

Rob Gronkowski (David Butler II/US Presswire)

It’s the final week of the regular season and the top three seeds in the AFC are still wide open.  Among those fighting for bye weeks and home field advantage are the New England Patriots, and though they’ll need some help to nab a top seed, their first and foremost order of business is to take care of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.  The game has been flexed to 4:25 p.m., most likely to avoid a situation where the Denver Broncos know they’ve already secured their seed and thus can coast through their final game.

When the Patriots and Dolphins met down in Miami a few weeks back, the game was closer than the records would indicate.  But it always is in Miami, and don’t expect the Dolphins to roll over in this one either.  Head coach Joe Philbin would love to finish his inaugural year at .500, especially since that means a spoiling win over a division rival.

By The Numbers

New England Miami
Record 11-4 (1st in AFCE) 7-8 (2nd in AFCE)
Points/G 35.3 (1st) 19.2 (25th)
Points All./G 22.1 (17th) 19.3 (6th)
Rush Yds/G 134.5 (8th) 117.0 (13th)
Rush Yds All./G 105.5 (12th) 104.5 (10th)
Pass Yds/G 292.4 (4th) 198.2 (26th)
Pass Yds All./G 275.5 (29th) 246.5 (25th)
Takeaways 39 (2nd) 16 (T-28th)
Giveaways 16 (T-5th) 24 (T-18th)
TO Diff. 23 (1st) -8 (24th)

Patriots Offense vs. Dolphins Defense

Early after Rob Gronkowski‘s injury, the Patriots offense looked like it was going to continue rolling without him, averaging about 38 points per game over the first 3 games.  Since then however, his absence has been greatly missed, not only for his receiving skills but in his run and pass blocking as well.  Tom Brady has been getting hit far more often than anyone is comfortable with, and though the running game has been adequate, Stevan Ridley and company haven’t enjoyed the kind of second-level spring blocks that Gronk can often provide. The good news this week is that Gronkowski is expected to suit up and play, but how effective he is remains to be seen.

Hopefully his presence can slow down the pass rush of Cameron Wake, who not only recorded one and a half sacks in the last game against the Pats, but hit Brady three times on top of that.  Altogether, Miami sacked Brady four times and hit him eight more.  The O-Line will have to do a better job keeping Brady upright or the Pats will have just as much trouble scoring as they did last time. In the grander scheme, playoff seeding aside, the Patriots would rather get out of this game with as healthy a team as possible, and that starts with keeping Brady’s uniform clean.

Dolphins Offense vs. Patriots Defense

The Patriots defense did its job down in Miami, holding the Dolphins to 277 total yards and 16 points in the last matchup. It could have been a lot worse for Miami, considering they fumbled five times and only lost one of them, a point coach Philbin is sure to address with his team prior to round two. Though Reggie Bush got decent yards for his 15 carries, the Patriots did a great job keeping him out of the passing game, where he can take screens and dump-offs for big gains on any given play. Repeating that performance won’t be easy, but it will be key to keeping the Miami offense in check once again.

The Pats defense might get a small spark with the return of Jermaine Cunningham, who’s expected to be reactivated to the 53-man roster following a 4-game suspension.  Cunningham’s value is most prevalent on third down, where his interior pass rush skills help to free up Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edges.

Of course the key to the Patriots defense in this game and any game going forward is the health of the secondary. Without much depth at corner, even one injury can cause a trickle-down effect that throws the whole unit out of balance, which was evident last week against the woeful Jaguars offense.  The health of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard are paramount to the team’s success in the playoffs, so Bill Belichick may elect to sit them rather than play them at less than 100%.  If they don’t play significant snaps, expect Ryan Tannehill to do better than the 186 yards he threw for in Miami.

X-Factors

- Though the snow will have stopped long before game time, it’s still going to be cold and potentially windy at Gillette.  While the temperature certainly works against a team from the south, wind is equally disruptive for any quarterback, and could result in another close, low-scoring, and ugly game.

- Expect Miami to pull out any and every trick play they’ve got hidden away this week.  With no playoff games in their future, there’s no reason to hold anything back.

- On the opposite end of the spectrum, some reports have indicated that the Patriots are playing a more vanilla style of football in order to save gameplans for the playoffs and rebuild their fundamentals.  Don’t be surprised if the Pats appear to be somewhat uninspired in their playcalling.

Prediction

On paper, you’d expect the Patriots to walk away with this one.  But there are a lot of mitigating factors that will make this game a dog fight. Windy conditions will hinder both passing games, and both teams employ a tough run defense.  If Houston loses to Indianapolis in their game at 1:00pm, the Patriots will have a tangible benefit (a first round bye) to play for.  If not, this could be one of those games where Miami has all the motivation and the Patriots are simply waiting for the playoffs to start.

Patriots 20, Dolphins 23

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