The heat is an obvious factor, but one out of New England's control. The history of the series also is out of the Patriots' control. And that is Bill Belichick's message this week. Surely the oppressive conditions have played a role in the Dolphins' dominance of this matchup, but execution has been a bigger problem and execution, according to Belichick, is what New England does control.
"I don't think that's important to our players," Belichick said of history. "Who won when New England played in Miami in 1972? What difference does it make? What's important to us are the games we have played there recently and how we need to play this year. Some of these guys were in junior high school 10 years ago; they don't care what happened then. I'm not minimizing the franchise's competitiveness and the rivalry, but I don't think those games affect how we play.
"The biggest reason for us to play well this year is for what this team can accomplish and for what these guys can accomplish themselves. Hopefully we'll play better than we have been down there."
Belichick hasn't addressed the heat and apparently told his players not to talk about it. "I don't talk about it because it doesn't bother me," left tackle Matt Light said.
It's difficult to blame the Patriots' recent losses on the temperature anyway. Heat would seem to weigh heaviest on a visiting team unaccustomed to it in the fourth quarter, but in recent meetings, the Patriots have been overwhelmed from the opening whistle.
In the last two years, the Patriots have trailed at halftime by a combined score of 33-10 and seven of those 10 points were set up by a Mike Vrabel interception inside the Dolphins 10-yard line. So it's not as if the Patriots are blowing late leads as the soaring temperature renders them legless.
While the heat will obviously be a factor Sunday, it's the running back who brings the heat that New England will need to cool off. Ricky Williams torched the Patriots for 290 yards in two meetings last year, including 185 the last time the clubs hooked last December in Foxborough.
The Dolphins enter the meeting averaging 132.8 rushing yards per game with Williams accounting for 461 of the Dolphins' 664 total rushing yards on 134 carries, which puts him on pace for 429 rushing attempts this season. He is a bull. He is a workhorse who will run through defenders to make extra yardage and run by them for big plays. He also acts as quarterback Jay Fiedler's outlet with his 14 receptions second only to top wideout Chris Chamber's 21.
Consider that Miami has run 303 offensive plays through five games and Williams has touched the ball on 148 of those or 49 percent of the team's snaps. Miami runs the ball 54 percent of the time so it is safe to say New England must come up with a plan to stop Williams.
"It all starts with Ricky," Belichick stressed. "And then they have big-play receivers like Chambers and Randy McMichael to go with. I think Jay Fiedler has played well. They have gone to more play action when teams start to tighten up against the run. They're happy to go somewhere else."
The Patriots defense, unlike most of last season, has generally been up to the task against the run, allowing just 89.3 rushing yards per game. It has not allowed a single back to eclipse 100 yards in six games, although both Buffalo and Washington eclipsed 100 as a team, which not coincidentally are the two games the Patriots lost. Opponents' leading rushers are averaging just 62 yards per game against a Patriots defense that remains injury depleted.
"We're a better defense than we were last year," Belichick confirmed. "We have more team speed."
While New England has squared off with the likes of Travis Henry, Duce Staley, Curtis Martin, Trung Canidate, Eddie George and Tiki Barber, none of those backs present the full package of skills Williams does. The best way to slow Williams, other than simply tackling him, is to get him off the field and keep him off.
There is no doubt that third down is a major deciding factor every week in the NFL, but it becomes magnified against a team that can wear down a defense with its running game as the Dolphins can. Consider that in the last two years, the Patriots are 0-2 in Miami, but 2-0 against the Dolphins at home. In the two games at Miami, the Dolphins have converted 17-of-32 third downs (53 percent) while averaging 68.5 offensive plays. The Patriots, meanwhile, converted just 7-of-21 third downs (33 percent) in those Miami meetings while averaging 51 offensive plays. That's 17.5 more offensive plays per game that Miami has run in those two games.
But consider the results when the teams met Foxborough in those same two seasons. Miami converted just 6-of-24 (25 percent) third downs and averaged 60 plays while the Patriots converted 12-of-31 (39 percent) while averaging 72 offensive plays -- same two teams in different stadiums and different times of the year. For the third straight season, the Patriots travel to Miami in October while Miami flies up North in December.
This season, the Patriots have converted only 34.2 percent of third downs while holding opponents to just 32.1 percent. Miami is converting them at a 41.3 percent clip while allowing conversions at a 37.9 percent rate.
So third down takes on added importance against a back like Williams. If New England is able to get off the field on third down and convert a high offensive percentage it could effectively limit Williams' output and his effect on the defense as the game wears on and the heat takes its toll.
-Patriots G Joe Andruzzi vs. Dolphins DT Tim Bowens. Andruzzi is as healthy as he's been in recent years and he must be able to move Bowens off the ball so that center Dan Koppen can get out to block the linebackers without having to double team Bowens. If Bowens is blowing up plays and requires a double team, the Patriots will struggle to move the ball on the ground.
-Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi vs. Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. Bruschi leads the Patriots with 52 tackles and is the team's biggest playmaker at linebacker. He will have to stay in Williams' shirt in both the running game and passing game. Williams is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry, but will be more effective in this game late if he Miami is able to stay ion the field by converting third downs.
-Patriots CB Ty Law vs. Dolphins WR Chris Chambers. Chambers is Miami's biggest threat at receiver. He is big and physical and can make plays in the ball in one-on-one coverage. He presents an interesting matchup for the hobbled Law, who is playing on a balky ankle and still playing some of the best football of his career. Law is physical and needs to win this battle.
SERIES HISTORY: 76th meeting. Miami Dolphins lead series, 45-30, and have won 30-of-37 vs. the Patriots at home and have never lost to them at home in September or October. But the Patriots won in Philadelphia this year for the first time ever and snapped a five-game home losing streak to the Jets. So New England might be just be a trend-breaking team this year.
The last meeting between the clubs was one of the more memorable matchups of late. It was last Dec. 27 when the Patriots needed a win and a Jets loss to make the playoffs on the final weekend. Miami needed to win to capture the division title or miss the playoffs outright with a loss. The Dolphins led by 11 with less than five minutes left, but made a series of mistakes and lost 27-24 in overtime.
The Dolphins led 14-0 and 21-7 in the first half. It was 24-13 with 5:03 left when Tom Brady drove New England 68 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. A successful two-point conversion cut the Patriots deficit to 24-21 with 2:49 left.
On the ensuing kickoff, Travis Minor let the ball bounce past him down to the 2-yard line before he picked it up and was tackled at the 4. The Dolphins couldn't get a first down and actually helped New England by throwing incomplete pass on third down to stop the clock. A poor punt gave the Patriots the ball on Miami's side of the field with 2:11 to go and Adam Vinatieri tied the game with a 43-yard field goal.
In overtime, Olindo Mare booted the kickoff out of bounds giving the Patriots the ball at the 40. Kevin Faulk ripped off a 15-yard run and caught a 20-yard pass and New England set up Vinatieri for a 35-yard game-winning field goal. Later that day, the Jets crushed the Packers and both New England and Miami missed the playoffs.