Opposition Research: Dolphins at Patriots

An AFC East division title on the line as Patriots seek to bury the Dolphins in a New England blizzard. Scott McCandless analyzes the upcoming game...

The 10-2 New England Patriots can clinch the AFC East division with a win this weekend.  To do so, though, they will have to beat a very tough division rival in the 8-4 Miami Dolphins

The Patriots beat the Dolphins earlier this season with a 19-13 win in Miami.  The Patriots won that game in overtime with a dramatic "walk-off" 82-yard touchdown from Tom Brady to Troy Brown.  That victory, on October 16th, marked the first time that the Patriots had ever won a game in Miami in September or October.

The Dolphins have a somewhat similar streak to overcome regarding playing in New England.  They have lost 5 straight December road games in general and 2 straight December trips to New England.  The Patriots have won the past 4 December home games against Miami when both had winning records (2002, 2001, 1997 (a playoff game), and 1977).  Can the Patriots win a fifth?

But the Dolphins are tied for the best road record in the AFC with a 5-1 record away from Miami.  The Patriots meanwhile are 6-0 against teams with a winning record this season.  With both teams boasting such strong statistics, something has to give.

Some of the "elements" that will affect this weekend's match-up:

The Running Game

With severe winter weather predicted for New England this weekend (see below), the running games will likely be a critical piece of each team's strategies. 

The Patriots defense has given up 100 yards or more on the ground to an individual rusher just once this season, and it was the only game in which defensive tackle Richard Seymour did not play (against Denver).  But Miami's Ricky Williams almost reached that mark against New England in Week 7, rushing for 94 yards on 27 carries (a 3.5 yards-per-carry average). 

New England has had trouble containing Williams.  Last year, Williams ran for a massive 185 in the teams' December meeting (although the Patriots won the game, barely).  That performance was part of the reason the Patriots were ranked 31st in rushing defense in the 2002 season. 

This year, the Patriots are the 5th best rushing defense in the league and their best run stoppers are just hitting their strides. Ted Washington, a four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle (including back-to-back trips in 2001-2002), is rapidly returning to top form after a broken leg kept him on the sidelines from the end of September through mid-November.  Linebacker Ted Johnson is also again a force after missing all but 4 games this year.  They will be tested by a Dolphins team that has totaled 130 or more rushing yards in three straight games but the two combined for 10 tackles last week and will be a big part of the anti-Williams group this Sunday.

The Dolphins defense has less to worry about.  New England's rushing attack ranks just 24th in the league.  Although the Patriots surpassed the 100-yards-per game mark in five of their first six games, they have only done so once since then (128 total rushing yards against the Texans two weeks ago). 

Alternating among Kevin Faulk, Antowain Smith, and Mike Cloud, the Patriots have not found a single player to provide a consistent running threat.  Cloud leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 5 but he has only 27 carries, while Faulk leads the team in rushing with 550 yards but he has yet to score a rushing touchdown.  (In fact, Faulk has zero touchdowns this season despite being the rushing leader and second on the team in receptions.) 

One of these players will have to step up against Miami's rushing defense, which is 4th-best in the league (just ahead of New England's). 

Eugene Wilson

The Patriots rookie free safety had a rough game against Indianapolis last week.  He was beaten on two touchdown passes by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, one to receiver Troy Edwards and another to Marvin Harrison.  Wilson was part of a backfield that allowed Manning to complete more than 60 percent of his passes (29 of 48 attempts) and it appeared that the Colts had made a conscious decision to target Wilson specifically. 

Additionally, Wilson's teammates seemed frustrated with him.  When Wilson missed a tipped ball that fell right into his hands for what should have been an easy interception, fellow safety Rodney Harrison erupted with yells and gestures directed at Wilson.  For a team renowned for its chemistry, Wilson's play invoked a rare public display of disaffection.

Has Wilson hit a "rookie wall"?  (By this point of the NFL year, rookies have played more games than in any college season.)  I say no.

The Colts game was unusual.  Manning's 48 attempts actually present evidence in favor of Wilson having done rather well, not poorly, because there were so many situations in which Wilson and the backfield unit were tested.  Manning and the Colts have multiple offensive weapons, a fact that puts more pressure on the entire secondary because there is no one player that the Patriots could target to shut down.  In fact, the Patriots were mostly in zone, with star cornerback Ty Law "handing off" star receiver Harrison to his teammates rather than playing man to man.  Wilson still made 5 tackles and defended a pass in the game.

Most significantly, Wilson was part of one of the game's most important plays.  As is by now famous, the Patriots won the game by surviving four consecutive Colts goal-line plays.  On the first down, with the Colts on the 2-yard line, Manning handed off to running back Edgerrin James, who ran off right tackle to an opening.  James was literally stopped in his tracks by linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who had James by the ankles at the one, but James could have fallen forward into the end zone had Wilson not rushed in to hit James in the chest and knock him back and down.  With Bruschi low and Wilson high, the Patriots survived to play another down.

Wilson has been one of the team's most impressive rookies.  In fact, he has been one of the league's most impressive rookies with 48 tackles and 3 interceptions so far this season.  Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler is no Peyton Manning and Wilson will probably be able to have some success this Sunday of the kind Patriots fans are coming to expect for this budding star safety.

"Significant Accumulations Expected"

Forget everything else about this game, the players and the match-ups and the predictions.  With a major snowstorm bearing down on the New England region, and at least 6 inches of snow expected overnight on Saturday, the weather will be a major factor.

With final snow totals possibly reaching 8 to 14 inches and with high winds of up to 30 or 35 miles per hour, the game could easily turn on a question of which team makes the fewest mistakes. 

And in these conditions, the Patriots may have it harder.  As noted above, the Patriots' running game is not its strength (whereas Miami's Williams rushed for over 200 yards in a snowstorm in Buffalo last year).  Those winds will adversely affect any plans to throw the ball.  In the teams' Week 7 meeting, Brady had 283 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winning 82-yard strike to Brown.  Brady will probably need to duplicate that performance – and avoid the mistakes that plagued his last two games (2 interceptions in each game) – to support the team's running backs, but the winds will make that very difficult

Also in this weather, ball handling will be an issue for both teams.  The Patriots have lost 5 (of 9) fumbles to the Dolphins' 4 (of 5) and whichever team wins that turnover battle will likely win the game.  Fumbles may be common, though, and at times the game could look like a comedy of errors among the flurry of flakes.

But the Patriots will have a small advantage in the home crowd, which, despite the expected bad weather, should feature a big crowd: this game marks the Patriots' 100th consecutive sell-out crowd.  And after two games in opponents' domed arenas, the Foxboro faithful will be a welcome relief to the Patriots players.  Offensive lineman Damien Woody described Indianapolis as "deafening," saying the linemen could not even hear Brady when he was standing right next to them.  At least this week, the offense will likely be able to hear each other. 

Unless they have to scream over a howling wind.

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