Patriots Work on Number 19
By Dave Fletcher, PI Contributor
If recent history is any indication, Las Vegas might want ease off its current 12.5-point line for this Sunday's game between the underdog Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
While the Dolphins (0-4) have been in a downward spiral since losing an overtime heartbreaker to the Patriots (3-0) last season, 19-13, very rarely have they come out on the short end of a blowout to Bill Belichick's squad. In fact, the last game that could be considered lopsided was a 30-10 Dolphins win during the 2001 season.
Since then, Miami-New England matchups usually translate into dogfights, with the winner sealing the deal late in the fourth quarter or in, in the case of Week 5 last year, overtime.
Of course, the glaring difference heading into this season's first contest between the division rivals is the absence of former Dolphins stud halfback, Ricky Williams. However, don't be surprised if Miami's third-ranked defense keeps New England's bid for a league-record 19th consecutive regular season victory in doubt until the waning moments of the game.
Remember, the Patriots' defense scored more points than the offense in last year's division clinching 12-0 win at snowy Gillette. And quarterback Tom Brady and company needed nearly five full quarters to put 19 points on the board in their 19-13 October victory.
The one player that seems to give the New England offensive line the most fits is defensive end Jason Taylor, Miami's perennial all-pro pass rusher. Taylor has only two sacks in four games so far this season, well below his usual pace, but he registered two sacks against the Patriots in last year's second loss.
"Jason's got a big motor, he comes hard every play, he has a lot of upfield speed and has a good counter move inside," Belichick said during Wednesday's press conference. "He can bring some power even though he's primarily a speed guy. He's got long arms. He does a good job of reaching the blockers, grabbing them from behind and jerking them and throwing them off balance."
The blocker who will be trying to avoid being thrown off balance most of the time on Sunday will be left offensive tackle Matt Light, fresh off signing a six-year, $27 million contract extension with $9 million in bonuses.
Thankfully for Light, who is still regaining his endurance after a shortened preseason, this first Pats-Dolphins game won't be played in the early fall heat of Pro Player Stadium for the first time in his career. In past meetings, Taylor has victimized Light in the trenches and put enough pressure on Brady to disrupt the rhythm of the timing-based passing game.
After allowing sacks in both the Indianapolis and Arizona wins, Light began working on increasing his stamina during practice by simulating tiring game situations.
"[His stamina] is much better," Belichick said. "Matt's worked hard at it, he's done a lot of extra running in practice. [We've been] trying to get him to tire a little bit [with conditioning work before practice], so that when he does practice, he's practicing with a little bit of fatigue."
The routine paid off last week against a stout Buffalo defensive line, which did not manage a sack on Brady in New England's 31-17 win.
The best way for New England to take Taylor out of the game is to establish the run early with halfback Corey Dillon, forcing the Dolphins back on their heels on first and second down. If the offensive line can create running gaps, the Patriots can use Taylor's aggressiveness and speed against him and open up a lead.
But with Miami surrendering an average of 15 points per game, the Dolphins expect to stay close to the Patriots until the final whistle, as they have in their previous four games this season.
"Every game, we've had a chance to win," said Miami head coach Dave Wannstedt, who acknowledges his offense's profound struggles - they're averaging just eight points per game - are directly related to the sudden retirement of Ricky Williams. "It's been very difficult, the guy was 65 or 70 percent of our offense."
The Dolphins have coped with the loss of Williams while searching for their offensive identity with five new starters on their offensive. It is no secret that Miami will need a dominating defensive effort to have a chance against the streaking Patriots, even if the Dolphins have no interest in talking about their opponents' place in history.
"Our focus is not on any streak, we're just trying to win one game," said Wannstedt, sounding eerily similar to his coaching counterpart, against whom he is 4-4. "It's a division game on the road and, more importantly, we're just trying to win a football game."
The Dolphins travel to Gillette Stadium on Sunday in their first of two divisional
matchups against the Patriots. This is their chance to prevent the Patriots
from breaking the longest
consecutive winning streak held jointly by the Dolphins, Patriots and five
other teams (Chicago [twice], Cleveland, Miami, San Fran, Denver.) Game time
is 1:00 PM EST.
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