Jon Scott: You sound disappointed in the inevitability of your team's fate? As Chuck Knoll one opined; "A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning." I supposed the same can be said for the rest of us.
The Patriots do what they do because they have built a winning system that tries to create depth at every position, with the various parts becoming nearly interchangeable. One thing for sure, is whichever team has Tom Brady (Patriots or others) would probably have same success … he is the key to the engine.
The difference in this year's Patriots team is that it has 5 (YES, Five!) tight ends on the roster. Usually the team goes with 2 or 3; last year it was 2. A tight-end-heavy lean has given the team a new look to the offense, and more power in the running game. That is evidenced by the fact that they are the sixth-best rushing team in the NFL, averaging 143 yards per game. They're not doing it with padded stats from running quarterbacks like #1 Washington (RGIII) and #2 San Francisco (Kaepernick), nor do they rely on a one-main-back system like San Fran, #3 Minnesota (Adrian Peterson), #4 Kansas City (Jamaal Charles) or #5 Houston (Arian Foster). They do what they do with a rag tag bunch of unknowns.
In 2011 the Patriots were the 20th-ranked rushing team in the NFL, averaging just 110 yards per game, most of which came from one back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. How many teams let their lead rusher walk, and actually improve the ground game without signing/drafting a new stud RB?
What in the world is going on with Wes Welker, with this talk of Bill Belichick "freezing him" because of his contract situation? Where would this offense go without him?
JS: The easy answer is the team would be in real trouble without Welker this year, and Belichick knows it. The contract squabble is about positioning each side for the best possible deal. Rather than deal with that dance, the Patriots — as they have done for years under Belichick — would rather let a guy walk than sacrifice the team balance by overpaying for past performance. That philosophy tends to rub people (fans, players, observers) the wrong way. But in reality, that's really the best system to use.
Welker accounts for 28 percent of the team's passing yardage this year, and about 27 percent of the team's first downs (via pass). He's big when it matters, but not more important than, say, Rob Gronkowski, who has similar numbers.
How much better is the running game this year with Stevan Ridley taking over for the law firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis?
JS: As I noted earlier, this year's Patriots running game is actually better than last year's group. Although Ridley was part of both, without Green-Ellis the team has become more dynamic in the ground game. Ridley has proven he can get tough yards, which was Green-Ellis' forte. Without "The Lawfirm" around, the team can actually find some snaps for RB Shane Vereen, who had a chance to show how dynamic he can be with his speed last week vs the Jets. Again, the Patriots are the 6th best rushing unit in 2012, compared to the 20th best unit in 2011 — a huge improvement for them.
Fan favorite Danny Woodhead remains the third-down back of choice, but Vereen is pushing him for playing time. Even undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden had an impact early; he's averaged a team best 5.4 yards per carry.
The Patriots are second in the league with 34 takeaways, this from a defense that gives up a lot of yards; how are they doing this, mirrors?
JS: Ball-hawking and opponent ineptitude has contributed to the Patriots' good fortune. I can't recall a year when they've been this aggressive in going after the ball. One thing that has definitely picked up is the forced fumble tackling. While the technique of trying to strip tackle opponents leads to some missed tackles, it has also yielded significant increase in opponent fumbles.
How big of an impact will the absence of rookie sensation Chandler Jones be?
JS: Jones was a surprise early in the season, showing significant burst off the edge. He's surprisingly agile for a guy his size, and has developed some quality pass-rush moves to go along with his repertoire of power moves. The Patriots desperately needed to add a quality pass rusher after losing Andre Carter and Mark Anderson during the offseason.
The Patriots have adjusted without Jones, who has been limited the past few games due to an injury. Guys who can fill in on the edge are Rob Ninkovich, who plays on the opposite side of Jones usually, and Trevor Scott, an offseason acquisition from the Raiders. Scott has been limited in play time. The Patriots also use varying fronts, sometimes with two linemen, or four linemen (3 defensive tackles). Justin Francis has seen some action on the line, as well as Brandon Deaderick. I would expect a number of different looks, similar to what the Patriots did against the Jets and the Colts.
Who is the one player on defense the Dolphins have to concern themselves with, and why?
JS: Vince Wilfork is the key to New England's success on defense. He's been subbed out a lot recently, which other teams have taken advantage of by running up the middle when he's not there. He's constantly double-teamed, yet still manages to bring pressure up the middle. He can split double teams to get to the quarterback.
Finally, your prediction for Sunday's game, and why?
JS: I fully expect New England to struggle defensively in this game, much like they have vs the Colts and Jets, right up to the point where turnovers take over the game. Without the turnovers — which resulted in points — the Patriots were in one-score games with both Indy and New York. The comedy of errors in New York doomed the Jets, while bad passes by Andrew Luck resulted in that game getting out of hand fast. If Ryan Tannehill avoids making dumb mistakes, and the Dolphins protect the ball, I expect a pretty close game. I do expect New England to continue their December success, and win the game, but only by a one-score difference.