The Patriots face one of their tougher tests of the season as the Miami Dolphins head into Gillette to try and stay alive in the division race and playoff hunt. The Dolphins have been up-and-down all year, but one of their best wins of the season came in the season opener over New England. The Miami defense completely shut New England down in the second half after allowing 20 points in the first. Some will attribute the Patriots letdown to the heat and humidity of South Florida, but it was more the Miami defense than the heat that blanked Tom Brady and the offense. This week the script is flipped as Miami will be forced to play in the cold conditions of Massachusetts. Let's take a look at the Weekly Five Questions to determine who'll win on Sunday afternoon.
1. How will the Patriots move the ball?
Miami is third in the NFL at defending the pass, allowing only 203 yards per game. Their pass rush combined with an excellent secondary is the reason, and the Patriots found out Week One that they're for real. Cameron Wake (9.5 sacks) and Olivier Vernon (6.5 sacks) are going to be a handful for Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, so much so that the Patriots are going to be forced into using tight ends and extra lineman to handle them. As we saw last week in San Diego, Nate Solder simply can't handle top end pass rushers, so he is guaranteed to have help throughout the day. The Miami passing defense is very good, but it's a different story when they defend the run. Miami opponents have run for 124 yards per game this season, so the Patriots must take advantage of this weakness. Typically teams with a great pass rush aren't the best run defenders, as is the case with the Dolphins. LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen ALL need to be featured in the gameplan; Vereen could pick up big yardage on screen plays, Bolden brings a little more quickness (the reason why he was used against the speedy Green Bay defense) and Blount/Gray will bring the thunder. If the Patriots throw the ball more than 40 times on Sunday, that's not a good sign. Use Miami' speed and athleticism against them and get them on their heals; accomplish that and the offense will have no problem scoring points.
2. Can the Dolphins score against the New England defense?
In Week One, the Dolphins faced a Patriots defense that hadn't gelled yet. In Week 15, the Patriots defense looks great and Miami is going to have their hands full. Mike Wallace has played well against Darrelle Revis in his career, but Revis is at the top of his game right now and he'll lockdown Wallace this week. Jarvis Landry leads the Dolphins in receptions, but he is more of a possession receiver than a speed threat, so Logan Ryan or Brandon Browner should be able to handle him. The Dolphins are only averaging 217 yards passing per game, which just isn't going to cut it in today's NFL. Ryan Tannehill does move around the pocket well and is a threat to run, but if the Patriots keep him inside the pocket, it's going to be a long day for the fourth year quarterback out of Texas A&M. The Miami rushing attack is decent, running for 115 yards per game, which places them 12th on the NFL. Although the Miami running game isn't spectacular, they do have a talented lead back in Lamar Miller, who has run for 782 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. The Patriots will have to key on Miller to prevent the Dolphins from getting the run game going. The Dolphins have averaged 24 points per game this season, but they'll be lucky to score 20 this week.
3. Who has the edge in the coaching match up?
Joe Philbin was on the hot seat heading into 2014, but he's done a good job getting the Dolphins back to competing for the playoffs. Philbin and his staff got the best of Belichick and co. to open the season, but nobody outduels Bill twice in one year. These staffs now have a pretty good idea of what they want to do to each other, which is typical with division matchups, so it's going to come down to who's more disciplined and does a better job of taking advantage of weaknesses. Belichick is not going to allow Josh McDaniels to get away from balance on offense because if they do, it will cost them the game. Advantage, Patriots, but certainly not by a lot.
4. Will the Dolphins find a way to give Brady fits?
Yes, the Dolphins ARE going to give Brady some trouble on Sunday. If the Chargers and their weak pass rush can get to Brady, it's pretty obvious that Miami, which has a very strong pass rush, will get to him too. The Patriots are going to need to use the short passing game- slants, curls, bubble screens, running back screens - all plays that either happen quickly or take advantage of the pass rushers pinning their ears back and getting upfield. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are candidates for big days in the passing game, as is running back Shane Vereen, who will be open in the flats and needs to make plays. Vereen hasn't contributed much over the last two games and with free agency looming, he not only needs to make plays to help the Patriots, he needs to start helping himself. Rob Gronkowski is going to be a big factor in the blocking scheme, which will take away from his overall yardage statistics, but his presence will be huge in the red zone like it always is. New England needs to do everything they can to keep Tom Brady upright on Sunday afternoon, so expect to see Marcus Cannon lined up as an extra tackle for a large portion of the game. With the contract extension he just received, he needs to justify why he's getting paid nine million over two years as a backup, but that's a story for another day. Brady is going to take some hits, but he'll make enough plays for the Patriots to win the game.
5. Who wins the game?
Because this is a division game, it's going to be physical just like the first meeting. This time the Patriots will be more prepared for the Dolphins strong pass rush and secondary. The gameplan will be geared towards running the ball on offense and containing Mike Wallace, Lamar Miller and Ryan Tannehill on defense. Dont'a Hightower should be back, which will help the defense as a whole and allow Jamie Collins to be himself and not wear the green dot, which carries a lot of responsibility. Chandler Jones may also return, and the Patriots will work him back into the lineup in passing situations. Akeem Ayers wasn't on the roster the first time they played, so his speed will help contain Tannehill. The Dolphins have had some injuries on the offensive line, losing left tackle Branden Albert for the season; this is going to help the pass rush in a major way. Although I don't see this game as a blowout, it won't be a surprise if the Patriots win by two scores.Prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 13