The New England Patriots travel to Miami this weekend to face the 5-2 Dolphins who are fresh off a Sunday Night Football loss to the Eagles. Miami already knocked the Patriots off in Week 2, a close game that ended when the Patriots failed to produce a final game-tying drive, dropping a seven-point loss, 24-17. Last week against the Bills, the Patriots were able to find success on that last drive, putting up the game-winning touchdown with just seconds remaining.
Can the Pats build off their upset win over the Bills and knock off another divisional rival who has beaten them in five of the last six meetings? Here's what to watch as the Pats and Dolphins meet for the final time this season.
Get a Lead, Again
Perhaps the most underrated part of last week's win over the Bills was how the Patriots managed to build a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. It was a huge departure from recent history that has too often seen the Pats fall behind and spend the rest of the game trying to make up the difference. This week against the Dolphins, it seems to be an even more important key considering how balanced and potent Miami's offense is. In the last three Dolphin wins over the Pats they've held leads of 17-0 (2021 regular season finale),17-3 (2022 opener) and 17-0 (Week 2, 2023) and that's a near impossible hole to dig yourself out of. New England needs a good start this week, anything but a 17-point hole that has been a troubling trend in their losses to the Fins.
Tua Tagovailoa is playing like an MVP candidate this season with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, and a whopping league-leading completion percentage of 71.2 while coming in second only to Patrick Mahomes in EPA. He's 5-0 all-time against the Patriots and logged another win over New England in Week 2, although it wasn't a 70-point explosion that he hung on the Broncos the following week. Last week, the Eagles disruptive defense held Tua in check, handing Miami their second loss of the season. One trend from that loss and their earlier defeat by the Bills? Tua was sacked multiple times in both, the only multiple-sack games allowed by Miami this year. That's where New England's key lies, attacking the battered left side of Miami's line and getting to Tua, but it's a daunting task. Miami has the second quickest time to throw in the NFL and has allowed the second-lowest pressure rate in the league. This is a well-oiled offense and one that must be attacked to be destroyed.
Hill & Waddle
The Patriots could get a break this week if Tyreek Hill is unable to go after popping up on the injury report with a hip injury this week. The Patriots contained Hill in Week 2, holding him to five catches on nine targets for 40 yards and a touchdown. It's been five games since Hill broke 100 yards against the Pats, but his teams are 4-1 in those games with the only win coming last year with Skylar Thompson and Teddy Bridgewater under center for Miami. Jaylen Waddle is also fighting a back injury this week, so the Patriots could get a break. Without Hill, Tua will be forced to win without his most dangerous weapon, something he spoke about this week.
"If we couldn't have Tyreek, that would be tough," said Tua on Wednesday via the Miami Herald. "But the show goes on. You've got to continue to play. And somewhere down the line, we're going to get Tyreek back. And it has to be one of those things where you never lift your foot off the gas and you don't lose that rhythm as a team or as a unit."
Stopping Miami's ground game
The thing that is putting Miami's offense over the top this year is the complementary running game, led by Raheem Mostert and his 5.6 yards-per-attempt average with nine touchdowns already. The Pats got an up-close look at the damage Mostert can do in Week 2 when the running back ripped off a 42-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that effectively put the game out of reach, his second touchdown of the game. Talented rookie De'Von Achane landed on IR, a significant blow to the Dolphins depth, but Mostert remains an effective runner, especially when Miami's passing attack is keeping multiple defenders in the deep part of the field. Mostert's numbers in Miami's two losses are glaring and a sign of how things can devolve for the Dolphins if the game does not unfold in their favor. He had seven carries for nine yards in their loss to the Bills and just nine carries for 45 yards against the Eagles as Miami fell into double-digit points deficits in both contests. Mostert also missed practice time this week with an ankle injury.
Even with a solid start that led to a 10-point lead, last week's divisional battle still came down to the very end as Mac Jones and the offense delivered a long-awaited game-winning drive. The energy was palpable as the Patriots walked off the field with the hard-fought victory, providing an injection of life into a team that was teetering at 1-5. Now, the offense should have confidence that they can do it again and in another hotly contested AFC East clash, it's a good bet that the Patriots offense will have to bust out the clutch again if they're to escape Miami with a win. In Week 2, Mac and the offense had their chance, down seven points with a final shot at the end zone, but they fizzled out at the Miami 33. If they get another chance this week, they'll look to tap the clutch that they found vs. Buffalo.
Need for speed on offense
Pop Douglas had a breakout game against the Bills, as his quickness was a welcome addition to the attack, while the rookie receiver also came through with big plays on the ground and as a punt returner, while drawing three penalties that all led to touchdowns and coming up with a number of high-difficulty catches. But the offense's evolution is about more than just Pop, it's about the growing team speed that is becoming more and more apparent. Jalen Reagor, promoted for the third and final protected time from the practice squad last week, could be a candidate for promotion as he began to eat into DeVante Parker's snaps at the X receiver position last week. Tyquan Thornton continues to ease his way back in, he played just three snaps but remains an intriguing speed option. It seems clear that offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien is trying to get more speed from his attack and these three players could hold the key to awakening an offense that has been too slow for too long. They'll look to take another big step forward against a Miami defense that ranks just 13th in passing EPA and 24th in overall defensive DVOA. On paper this defense can be attacked, but only if you don't allow Miami a big lead right out of the gate.
The Patriots tried out a new offensive line combination against the Bills and it paid off. Michael Onwenu shifted to right tackle, Sidy Sow stuck at right guard and Cole Strange returned from injury to see his first game action since the win over the Jets. Bill Belichick wouldn't confirm that Onwenu would remain at the tackle spot this week, as the return of Conor McDermott could be a factor, but the arrow is pointing up for the Patriots offensive line. Onwenu gave some stability on the right side while Trent Brown is putting together one of his best years on the left side as one of PFF's highest-graded tackles in the NFL, credited with just eight total pressures this season. Getting a lead helped keep the pressure off of Mac last week, but Miami's pass rushers are potent. The Dolphins had pressure on Mac nearly 33 percent of the time in the first matchup, against the Bills last week that dropped to 22 percent. Blocking Jalen Phillips, Bradley Chubb and their talented array of pass rushers is a big priority. Miami has 11 players with at least a half-sack, as their big leads have helped them bring the heat.
Get ground game going
Miami's 28th ranking in rush defense EPA is intriguing. The Patriots have had growing effectiveness on the ground, but against the Bills, it was more situational, as Stevenson and Elliott averaged just 3.8 and 2.8 yards-per-attempt respectively. Lost in those stats are the successful short-yardage carries as well as Stevenson's critical screen pass catch-and-run that sparked the game-winning drive. New England is 30th in rushing EPA, so it's hard to feel confident that they'll suddenly explode on the ground against the Dolphins but what a difference a successful rushing attack can make this week. First, it helps them keep Tua off the field and second, it helps keep the pass rush heat off of Mac.
Keep cleaning up mistakes
The Patriots narrowly avoided the kind of game-changing mistake that has haunted many of their recent losses. This time around it was a Kendrick Bourne fumble that gave Buffalo their first lead of the game late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots showed welcome and unexpected resilience, overcoming the mistake to produce a game-winning drive. This week, they must look to avoid those kinds of mistakes entirely, as Miami's offense will make you pay for mistakes like few other offenses. Last time, a second-possession fumble and a third-quarter interception helped New England fall behind and keep them from catching up. If the Pats are going to get their third win they will have to limit, if not completely eliminate those kinds of defeating mistakes.
Squish the Fish
Miami has long been a house of horrors for even the most talented Patriots teams, except those 2007 Patriots of course, and this is arguably the most talented Dolphins team that the Patriots have gone to South Florida to face, albeit one that is fighting some significant injury issues. Certainly, it's one that is offensively firing on all cylinders with one of the best-designed and most explosive attacks currently in the NFL. While getting a good start seems like the best key, it really comes down to winning the line of scrimmage, as New England must disrupt Tua and the offense's timing early and often, but also must see their offensive line win the battle in the trenches.