For Patriot pessimists and Dolphin optimists
Yes, it sounds crazy. Sure, the Patriots are playing at home, and they've won 7 of their last 10 home games against Miami, but we've uncovered some reasons why Pats fans shouldn't be so confident.
1) The Dolphins have a better rushing attack than advertised
Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown, even Patrick Cobb have the ability to make plays against the Patriots run defense. Although Miami has averaged just over 60 yards per game, Ricky Williams has been a Patriot killer in the past. Williams has 31 career 100-yard games, 15 in Miami. Of those three have come against New England, tied for the most of any team he's faced (Buffalo and Carolina also have 3). The Patriots run defense has habitually given up 100-yard games weekly as the focus isn't on yardage but on field position. Should Williams have a breakout game for the season, or even just a decent one, it opens up things for one of the better play-action pass quarterbacks (Pennington) to do this thing.
2) Chad Pennington can exploit the Patriots secondary
You're going to ask why, and no one will blame you. The easy answer is because if you think Matt Cassel can throw the ball, then you have to believe Pennington can as well. The Dolphins have a better pass offense than New England (14th vs 15th). The Patriots secondary has three new faces in it, and were it not for fortunate circumstances, the Jets could easily have made two or three big plays downfield if the ball was on target. The Patriots have left holes wide open in the secondary, but they've managed to cover for that by playing QBs who hurry the ball and aren't able to find the second or third option. Pennington has been one of the better QBs at finding his other options. Although he may not have the strongest arm, it doesn't come down to that against the Pats, even the short passes can be effective. Pennington's 65.3 career completion percentage is first all-time in NFL history.
3) The Dolphins can exploit the Pats 3rd down defense
The Miami line has been woeful in season's past, even this year. They've been beaten by some of the better front seven in the NFL and have a strong test again this week. But unlike the other games, Miami may not need to protect Pennington on 5 of 7-step drops so he can throw the deep pass. A combination of runs and passes to make third downs manageable is crucial for the Dolphins to succeed and exploit the Patriots' biggest weakness - third down defense. The Patriots have the third worst 3rd-down defense in the NFL at 50%. New England has faced the 6th most third down plays and still they've failed to stop the opponent half of the time. If Miami can do just enough to get to manageable third downs, they'll be able to sustain drives, and sustained drives lead to points.
4) Injuries will play a part in the game
It goes without saying the Patriots record against the Dolphins has a lot to do with Tom Brady. With Brady in the mix, a Patriots victory was almost certain on Sunday. Without Brady, there is potential for upset.
- Matt Cassel has started just one game in his career, and his track record has yet to be determined. His last pass against the Dolphins was an interception returned for a TD.
- RB's Laurence Maroney and LaMont Jordan are both hurt. The pair is the Patriots top two running backs, and a key to making their offense go.
- Vince Wilfork has an ailing back. Wilfork is a dominating defender in the middle, and his backup(s) Mike Wright, Le Kevin Smith are little better than fill-ins for Wilfork. They don't possess the size, strength or playmaking ability to fight through double teams.
- Special teamers Eric Alexander and Kelley Washington are hurting. The Patriots special teams have been burned for big plays this year. Though the Jets weren't able to get any due to deep kickoffs, Miami just might get an opportunity. If they do, two of New England's better special teamers will not be down there on coverage.
- The Patriots have had offensive line injuries. Billy Yates is subbing for Stephen Neal, and Matt Light has been battling an undisclosed injury since the preseason.
5) Dolphins can get to Cassel
Joey Porter - despite his mouth - is still one of the best sack specialists in the NFL. Porter's 66.5 career sacks ranks third in the NFL for active linebackers behind only Willie McGinest (NE/Clv) and Greg Ellis (Dal). The Patriots offensive line has been less impressive in 2008 than 2007, and can be embarrassed by a solid pass rush. The line performed woefully in the preseason. The Patriots have given up the 6th most sacks in the league (6) tied with the Dolphins and the Seahawks.
If Miami can get pressure on the Patriots to prevent the deep ball, then there is a good chance this game comes down to a late score to win it all -- far from the predicted two touchdown deficit predicted by Vegas.
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