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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Round 2 with Dolphins
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It seems like just yesterday that Bill Belichick’s Patriots were preparing to take on the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
While it wasn’t yesterday – New England actually beat up on Miami 35-17 on Nov. 26 in Foxborough – two NFL teams playing twice in three weeks is a pretty rare scenario.
The Patriots (10-2) cruise into the Monday night rematch riding an eight-game winning streak. With another win over the Dolphins – or a Buffalo loss to the Colts on Sunday – New England will clinch its ninth straight AFC title.
The Dolphins (5-7) snapped a five-game losing streak with last Sunday’s 35-9 blowout of the Broncos and cling, ever so slightly, to a possible postseason bid.
And though the teams certainly will be familiar with each other given their recent battle, there will be plenty of differences this time around. For Miami that means Jay Cutler back under center rather than Matt Moore. And Kenyan Drake coming off a big 120-yard rushing performance for the new-look Dolphins ground attack.
For the Patriots, the biggest change will be playing without suspended Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, though the team is also still dealing with plenty of injuries with 15 different players listed on the New England injury report as of Friday afternoon.
“This is really a unique situation,” Pro Bowl safety and team captain Devin McCourty said this week. “I think it forces you to really go over your usual process for the game. I think it's a week where if you're not focused and ready to go you could easily be like ‘I know that already. I just saw that.’ But I think when you can, as a team, mentally just understand [and] have some mental toughness –– like if we go over this like it's a whole new week and we start from scratch and like we say ‘refuel the tank’ and we get ready to go and we prepare the right way, you have a chance to really be prepared because now you're watching games that you've already watched. But now you're watching them with a better idea because you've played them already. You've seen things that they try to attack you with so now you're thinking about those things as you're watching the film again. So it really gives you a chance to be really prepared. Then obviously they're going to come in with some things that we didn't see last time so hopefully if you prepare well enough the only thing you'll have to adjust for is the things that come in that are new.”
And Belichick doesn’t sound like he’s going to let anyone take the week of preparation for granted.
“We can’t pick up from where we left off. That’s not where we are. It’s not what we’re going to do,” Belichick concluded. “We just need to start all over again and have a good week, be ready to go here Monday night. It’s a good football team. They have a lot of talent. This was an 11 point game in the fourth quarter and they had the ball. I thought the first game was really a lot closer than the score indicated. The score was tight there in the fourth quarter until we made the stop on downs and got the touchdown on that last series. A good team, play hard, tough, explosive, got a lot of big-play players in all three phases of the game. It’ll be a big challenge for us.”
With a little extra time to get ready for the challenge Monday night in Miami, a place New England has had its struggles over the years, here are some keys to keep an on in the Patriots latest hat-and-t-shirt game.
Spread the passing wealth – With Gronkowski out of the mix, Brady will be without his top option. The tight end leads the Patriots in receptions (55) and touchdowns (7). So Brady will have to look elsewhere. Surely that will include the usual targets for Brandin Cooks and the passing backs. But it could also lead to extra opportunities for Philip Dorsett and Danny Amendola. Maybe Chris Hogan (shoulder), who is back practicing, could find his way into the mix. Amendola has clearly been on some sort of pitch count this year, likely due to his history of knee issues. He’s had three or fewer catches in five of the last seven games. But he’s also had four games this year with six or more catches. This could be a time for one of those performances as Brady will look for other trusted options in the passing game to get rid of the ball quickly against a still-dangerous Dolphins defensive front.
Health check – Speaking of Brady, he was one of 15 Patriots on the injury report as of Friday afternoon. Brady missed practice time to his Achilles injury for a third straight week. While there is no doubt he’ll be ready to go in Miami, he didn’t deal with the pass rush overly well in the first half in Buffalo and that could have been tied to the injury. Brady’s pocket mobility is worth watching. Maybe the biggest issues regarding health are on defense, though. Trey Flowers missed last week with a rib injury and remains limited in practice. Even if he returns, the front could be without Kyle Van Noy (calf) and Deatrich Wise (foot). Both key cogs missed practice time this week, and Van Noy was held to just 15 snaps last week in Buffalo due to his injury. It’s also noteworthy that three of the Patriots top cornerbacks – Malcolm Butler (ankle), Stephon Gilmore (ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin) – were limited in practice due to injury. The Dolphins aren’t great on the ground or through the air on offense, but the banged up nature of the Patriots defense is a concern in both areas.
Running concern – New England’s run defense has just not been very good very often this season. The Patriots have the 26th rush defense in the NFL. They have allowed 100-plus yards in eight of 12 games, including 183 yards in Buffalo last Sunday. A lot of that has to do with personnel, especially on the edge of the front seven. Opponents have found way too much success on wide runs pretty much all season. Guys like Eric Lee are doing their best, but it hasn’t been good enough. Van Noy’s injury isn’t making it any better. Heck, newly re-signed veteran Jonathan Freeny may need to see action. Miami ranks just 29th in the league in rushing offense. They were actually one of the few teams the Patriots have stopped this year, held to just 67 yards two weeks ago although some of that had to do with in-game injuries at running game. Drake is coming off a 120-yard performance in the win over the Broncos. He’s hit on 40-plus yard runs in three of the last five games. Really, though, the way the Patriots run defense has been playing any opposing rushing attack has to be considered dangerous until proven otherwise.
On the line – New England’s offensive line has gotten a bit healthier. Center David Andrews is back in the middle. LaAdrian Waddle (ankle) missed last week but practiced all this week on a limited basis and might be ready to resume his fill-in role on the right side, where starter Marcus Cannon (ankle) is still absent from the practice field. Two weeks ago the Dolphins hit Brady a season-high eight times. Though Miami ranks near the bottom of the league in sacks per pass play, Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and Co. remain dangerous. As is so often the case, it’s up to the line to keep Brady upright and give him the time to take advantage of a young, banged up, suspect back end of the Miami defense. It will also be interesting to see if the line can keep things rolling on the ground, where New England has run for 190-plus yards in each of the last two weeks with its first two games of the season averaging 5-yards per carry as a team.
Prediction: Belichick turned up the heat in the Patriots indoor practice facility early this week, but Monday night’s weather is likely to be in the 60s. So, the heat shouldn’t be an issue. In all likelihood turnovers will be the biggest issue. Miami has 23 giveaways this fall, third-most in the NFL. New England’s opponents have been making key mistakes, including red zone giveaways, frequently of late. If that continues for Cutler and Co. it will go a long way toward the heavily-favored Patriots taking care of business. If the Dolphins can play clean, it’s the first step toward an upset. If Miami can force the Patriots – who are tied for the fewest giveaways in the NFL with just 8 – to turn it over, that would be another big step. It’s likely, though, that the teams play to their resumes. That means New England should be able to run it and throw it on offense, even without Gronk, and give itself plenty of chances to score. Defensively it means the Patriots will probably give up yards but make some timely plays, maybe turnovers, to keep Miami from too many scoring chances. It’s a formula that’s worked well for weeks. It should keep working. Still, Miami has been a tough place for Brady’s Patriots to play over the years. So, conservatively, something in the range of a 24-17 Patriots win could be in the works. It would be enough for another division title and to extend the win streak heading toward the big Week 15 trip to Pittsburgh for the showdown with the Steelers.
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