Bill Belichick leads his team to Miami on Sunday looking to check off what is every team's first goal each season – winning the division. New England (8-3) can do that with a win over the Dolphins (5-6), the second-place team in the AFC East at this point. It would also mark the 12th straight year the Patriots have won nine or more games, an incredibly impressive streak in this or any era. But to achieve those goals, New England has to get the job done in a place that hasn't always been easy over the years. The Patriots haven't lost a game over the second half of the season since 2009, but to run the table on yet another late-season run Tom Brady and Co. will have make themselves at home in the South Florida Sun. Whether you're watching at home in the cold or making the trip south with the team for a fun weekend, get ready for game time by cracking open this Dolphins Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Trim the Bush! – Lost in the Patriots recent five-game winning streak and blowouts is the fact that the once-stout run defense in New England been a bit leaky over the last month. New England still ranks 10th in the NFL in run defense, but the unit has allowed its last four opponents to go for better than 4 yards a carry on the way to more than 100 yards for the game. That happened just once in the first seven games of the year. C.J. Spiller was a part of that for the Bills a couple weeks back, and leading Dolphins rusher Reggie Bush is in the same mold in terms of potential playmaking ability. Bush is speedy and quick. He can make people miss and break some tackles. He hit the Patriots for more than 100 yards in their December meeting last year before leaving with an injury. This is a challenge as the Patriots run defense looks to tighten up its fits in the coming weeks heading toward January. Vince Wilfork is back in his home area looking to shine with Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and others. Bush is the type of back that has given the Patriots problems historically and clearly Miami will be looking to get him going in this one to help control the pace of the game. The Patriots have to cut Bush off at the pass, so to speak.
2. Hats, t-shirts and traps – The Patriots are 41-5 since 2001 in the month of December, but three of those losses came in games in Miami. That leaves one to wonder if this could be one of those trap games that pop up on all teams at some point. Brady has had some less than stellar days in Miami, including 10 interceptions in those three losses. Those nightmares aside, though, the Patriots are playing for the hats and t-shirts that Tedy Bruschi used to talk about so often. The fact that New England has something so important to play for could supersede the theoretical idea of a trap game. And New England hasn't fallen victim to a trap in the second part of the season in a while, not since one of those trips to Miami that turned out sour. Do I expect a stumble by the beach? No. Would I be stone-cold stunned if it happened? Yes. Given history is it a possibility? Sure.
3. Passing chance – In terms of the on-field matchup the biggest mismatch has to be with the Patriots No. 4 passing attack and No. 1 offense taking on Miami's 26th ranked pass defense. Even without Rob Gronkowski, New England has the weapons to take it to the suspect secondary of the Dolphins. With starter Richard Marshall lost to an injury, veteran Nolan Carroll has been forced into the starting lineup and has not played well. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, who seemed to enjoy the extra time between games this week, should give the Miami secondary problems. The evolution of the offense without Gronkowski should have a chance to continue in this one.
4. Wake up! – The biggest concern the Patriots have on offense is dealing with the Dolphins pass rush. The unit likes to blitz enough to try to help out the coverage. But even without blitzing, Cameron Wake is a force for the New England front to deal with in his own right. He's fifth in the NFL with 9.5 sacks and has become one of the more productive, consistent pass rushers in the game in recent years. New England has been very good in protection for most of the year, and has only allowed a single sack in the last four games, even while dealing with injuries to the line. Marcus Cannon stepped up and got the job done at right tackle last week, but Sebastian Vollmer has returned to practice. Nate Solder has been more than solid all year and he gets another test with Wake. But at this point it would be a surprise if the veteran pass rusher were allowed to make waves in the New England backfield.
5. DE-pth – With Chandler Jones missing for the second straight week with an ankle injury and Jermaine Cunningham suspended for four games the depth of the defensive end position is being tested. And the position didn't seem all that deep to start with. With Jones out again, Rob Ninkovich could just jump over to the right side. That would leave Trevor Scott, Justin Francis and maybe even Brandon Deaderick to fill in on the left side. Clearly, though, things won't be as good without Jones. He's been a three-down player all year and a productive force against both the pass and the run. Ryan Tannehill has the athleticism to challenge the edge of a defense and losing Jones in that area is certainly not ideal. Nor is playing an edge runner like Bush for that matter. That said, I like what I've seen over the months from Francis and think there is a chance he could open some eyes if given the opportunity, especially rushing the passer. He may not be the most gifted player, but he has a relentless motor and plays with an edge on the edge. I'm intrigued to see what he can do. The front will have to piece it together a bit on the edges, and that means the linebackers will have to play better as well. There is also a good chance that the lack of depth at end could result in more 3-4 fronts, with Ninkovich playing outside linebacker with Dont'a Hightower while Mayo and Spikes work inside.
6. Net 34 – The biggest thing that jumps off the page to me looking at this game is the turnover ratio for both teams. New England leads the NFL at plus-24. The Dolphins rank tied for 27th in the league at minus-10. That's a difference of 34 in the most important statistic, other than points, in the game. Tannehill has thrown 12 interceptions and the Patriots have done a good job in the back end taking advantage of mistakes from opposing quarterbacks and receivers. Tannehill, Bush and backup running back Daniel Thomas have all put the ball on the ground multiple times. So while Miami, like most teams New England plays, will probably move the ball they will also probably turn it over. The Patriots have forced multiple turnovers in eight straight games, including four or more in each of the last two weeks. I expect that type of trend to continue against Miami.
There is reason for some fans to have some trepidation about a Patriots trip to Miami, especially in December. Some have said that dealing with the heat in Florida is harder than dealing with the altitude in Denver. That may be even more dramatic given that the Patriots have been practicing and playing in cool or cold temperatures in recent weeks. All that said, the Patriots are clearly the better team in this matchup. If they protect Brady and take care of the ball I don't see an upset in the making. The turnover issue with the two teams is the key. Sure if Brady has a four-pick game in Miami, there could be a problem. But as well as No. 12 is playing and as little as I think of the Dolphins defensive backfield, I don't see that happening. In fact I see Brady taking advantage of that secondary to throw the ball early and build a lead. Then things will balance out with the ground game. On defense I expect Tannehill to give the Patriots a couple turnovers as it's simply hard to expect anything other than that given what New England has done this season. Put it all together and this has the makings of another relatively easy win, something in the range of 33-13 for the Patriots. Hats and t-shirts for everyone!