Presents could come early to New England as the Patriots (10-3) have a chance to clinch the AFC East – and as such get their swag on with some Division Champs hats and t-shirts -- with a win over the Dolphins (7-6) Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. Bill Belichick's team will also be looking for a little revenge, so to speak, for an opening-day loss in Miami as the Dolphins vie to become the first team to sweep the Patriots in the division since 2000. Miami needs to pull off the feat – which would be the team's third-straight win over New England dating back to last season – in order to remain alive in the AFC playoff picture. One team will have revenge on its mind. Another trying to keep its playoff hopes alive. And a division rivalry is renewed as the South Florida squad heads north in a battle for respect that should take place in relatively mild weather in Foxborough. Over the last month-plus the Patriots have clearly established themselves as a Super Bowl contender and arguably the best team in football. Now December is about finishing off the division, clinching a bye and possible No. 1 playoff seed and hitting January with as much momentum as possible. As you finish up your shopping and wrapping while waiting for the traditional 1 p.m. kickoff, enjoy this revenge is a fish (OK, porpoise) best served chilled, holiday-spirit fueled edition of the Dolphins at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Run for fun** – The Dolphins rush defense has been drowning in recent weeks, allowing 661 yards combined in the last three games. The front allowed 183 in last week's loss to Baltimore. The Jets ran the ball for 277 yards the week before, doing so without even a semblance of a passing game. The Broncos churned out 201 yards before that. For the season the Miami front ranks 22nd against the run allowing 123.5 yards a game and a 4.4-yard average. The Patriots 19th-ranked rushing attack stumbled after the opening drive last Sunday night in San Diego. LeGarrette Blount was bottled up by the Chargers, especially in the second half. Still, this matchup with Miami screams for the Patriots to get the running game going early. Not only will that take advantage of an obvious recent weakness for the Dolphins, it will also help an New England offensive line that's been struggling while simultaneously loosening up a solid Miami pass defense. Blount is ready to run. He loves this time of year as a bigger, powerful back, something he showed down the stretch last December with a few dominant performances. He said he realizes the Dolphins defense isn't playing the run that well of late and is looking forward to getting his chances against Miami. Coaching staffs put a lot of time into scouting and complex game plans, but this week the simple fact is the Patriots need to establish the run against a suspect Dolphins D. It's that basic for a team that's 40-1 over the years under Belichick and 3-0 in 2014 with a 100-yard rusher.
- Protection correction** – Though Josh McDaniels had praiseful words for his tackles this week, the fact remains that Nate Solder has struggled a bit in the last couple weeks. He's given up the edge too often and has been overpowered at other times. The pressure has seemingly adversely affected Tom Brady, both in Green Bay and San Francisco. Things won't be easier this week against a Miami front that got to Brady for a season-high four sacks in the opener. Cameron Wake (9.5 sacks) and Olivier Vernon (6.5) form a formidable defensive end duo. The Dolphins have 34 sacks as a team and rank 11th in sacks per pass play. Brady has only been sacked once each in the last two weeks, but it's the pressure that's a concern. The Dolphins don't have to blitz to get pressure, which is a hallmark of any defense looking to derail Brady and the Patriots passing attack. Running the ball should help the line do its job, but Solder and the rest simply need to be better if Brady is going to be his comfortable, effective self in the pocket.
- Middle men** – The Dolphins will obviously want to stay balanced and run the football on offense. Lamar Miller has taken over for Knowshon Moreno – who ran for 134 yards on New England on opening day – and put forth an impressive season. The third-year back is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He only has 162 attempts on the year and doesn't generally get more than 12 to 15 carries, but he's been successful in that role. At 782 yards he's well on his way to a 1,000-yard season. He also runs behind a solid offensive line that now has Mike Pouncey at right guard, the former center having not been a part of Miami's impressive offensive output in the opener. Belichick called Pouncey one of the best players in the league. The middle of the Patriots defensive line is currently as deep and productive as it's been all season. Vince Wilfork is leading the way, but Chris Jones, Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga have a nice rotation going on the inside. That's been a part of the success up front that's seen New England hold opponents to 3.6 yards per carry or less in four of the last five games. It's also important for the defensive line to play well given that there remains uncertainty at linebacker with Dont'a Hightower questionable after missing last week's game with a shoulder injury. Jamie Collins stepped up in a big way against San Diego, but there will still be a lot of focus on the defensive line meeting the challenges of the interior offensive line from Miami to try and take the run away from the Dolphins early on. If the Miami offense can stay balanced – including some zone reads and runs from the quarterback -- it will make life a lot easier for Ryan Tannehill and the passing attack. New England's run defense is on the rise and knocking on the door of being a top-10 unit. Continuing that trend against Miami would be a big first defensive step toward victory.
- Odd starts** – When the Patriots have struggled at times this season it's included tough starts – to games in the first quarter or coming out of halftime in the third quarter. Like so many teams, New England is at its best when it plays from ahead and gets off to a fast start. The Patriots are 7-0 in 2014 when scoring first and 117-25 in the Belichick era when getting on the board before the opposition. New England had a nice opening drive last week in San Diego, but had to settle for the a field goal. A week earlier they were shut out in the first quarter in Green Bay. They've also been shut out in the third quarter in the last two weeks, including four three-and-outs in the quarter last Sunday night. Interestingly Miami's most productive quarter this season has been the third, where the Dolphins have outscore the opposition 123-51. Having been on the road for a couple weeks – even though Patriot Nation put forth an impressive performance in San Diego – New England returns to a friendly home Foxborough crowd with an eye on starting the game a bit quicker than has been the case of late. And a team that used to be known for doubling up scores at the end of the first half and beginning of the second will hope to use the third quarter in this one to break a recent funk and put the Dolphins away, putting to rest the memories of the post-half problems from opening day in Miami.
- Turnover time** – The Patriots remain one of the best teams in the NFL in terms of turnover differential at plus-10 for the season. That ranks tied for third in the league. But twelve teams, including the Dolphins, have forced more turnovers than the Patriots 21 takeaways on the year. New England's takeaways have slowed dramatically over the second half of the season. A team that forced three or more turnovers in three of the first six games has had one or fewer in each of the last four weeks. As such, the Patriots haven't won the turnover differential within a game since beating the Broncos more than a month ago. New England had eight fumble recoveries in the first eight games but hasn't come away with one since. Some of that is circumstantial. Some of it is playing teams, like Green Bay, that take care of the football. But it also could mean that New England's defense is due for a big turnover game at some point soon. Miami isn't overly loose with the football with 18 turnovers on the season – nine lost fumbles and nine interceptions – but a warm weather team on the road in the northeast might be a chance for the Patriots to get back on track in the turnover game.
6. Finish it – After a bumpy start, the Patriots have set themselves up to be in good position heading into January. That starts on Sunday when the team can clinch a 12th AFC East title in 14 years while looking to extend its NFL-record home winning streak over AFC foes to 35 straight games. That win would put the Patriots one step closer to a No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs for a potential Super Bowl run. Six of New England's last seven games against the Dolphins in Foxborough have been wins by 10 points or more. Three of the last four times the Patriots have gone to the Super Bowl the team has gone 5-1 in the AFC East, a record the team can reach again by closing out the year on three-game swing through the division. Belichick has emphasized his team doing its job this week, even more than he normally does. The job this week is to remain undefeated at home, remain historically one of the best teams in the game after Thanksgiving, clinch the division and take another step toward the rest of the team's long-term goals. Things are set up well for New England and only a significant upset to a Miami teaming shockingly looking for its third win in a row against the Patriots will derail the team's chance to claim another set of championship hats and t-shirts.
The Patriots were clearly not happy to open the season with a loss in Miami, especially one in which the team faded to be shut out in the second half to turn a 10-point lead into a 13-point defeat. Chatter out of Miami had some Dolphins claiming the team could have put 50 points on the Patriots in the opener. Those comments have likely made their way to Foxborough and won't sit well inside Gillette Stadium. The Dolphins offense has been stagnant the last couple weeks, stuck in the teens. Miami is certainly no pushover. The team has impressive wins on the season and some hard-fought losses against good competition. But in the end the idea of Joe Philbin and Tannehill leading the Dolphins into Foxborough in December to orchestrate the upset to sweep the Patriots for the season just seems almost unfathomable against a very good Patriots team that is looking to take care of business. I expect the New England offense to come out running the ball well and that will open up the back end for a passing attack that's due for a breakout type performance. If the Dolphins are going to have a chance, Miller must run successfully early and I'm not expecting that to happen against the Patriots newly-stout run D. That will force Tannehill to try to make plays through the air against Darrelle Revis and Co. That should lead to some turnovers. The bottom line is simple if Wake/Vernon don't ruin the day for the New England offense and Miller doesn't run all over the Patriots defense I can't see the Dolphins putting together a winning formula. Rather, I expect the Patriots to surge out to an early lead that will force the Dolphins into trying to keep up. That will lead to turnovers. That will lead to more New England scoring. That could lead to a blowout win. So I'll go with a 38-13 New England victory, although Miami's talk of potentially topping 50 points in the opener might just push the Patriots to challenge the half-century mark on the scoreboard in this one. Hats and t-shirts for all. Another division crown. One step closer to January. And another disappointing season for Miami.