When you start a season with a lame-duck head coach and a seven-game losing streak, there is a good chance your final couple games will be meaningless. That's the situation the Dolphins (5-9) find themselves in as they head to Gillette Stadium for a Christmas Eve battle with the Patriots (11-3). But Miami hasn't given up on the season, even after Tony Sparano got his walking papers, as the Dolphins have won five of their last seven. They have the chance to spoil the Patriots holiday weekend, as New England looks to extend a six-game winning streak while trying to clamp down the No. 1 seed in the AFC postseason picture. Things never seem to be easy when dealing with the Dolphins, but the Patriots have plenty to play for before heading home to open some Christmas presents. What better way to spread cheer throughout Patriot Nation than a win over the Dolphins? As you finish up your wrapping and wait for the fat man to come sliding down the chimney indulge yourself in his eggnog inspired Dolphins edition of the Friday Six-Pack!
1. Running concern - The Patriots run defense is far colder than the New England weather right now, having allowed season highs on the ground over each of the last two weeks. A front seven that was previously considered stout against the run and the one thing that Bill Belichick could count on from his defense is suddenly a growing concern. As cold as the run defense has been for the Patriots, Miami's running game has been equally hot. Reggie Bush comes in with three straight 100-yard efforts, including more than 200 yards last Sunday in the cold air of Buffalo. New England allowed 200-plus last week, Miami ran for 200-plus last week. Sounds like an interesting battle of two teams streaking - with uniforms on - in the different directions in terms of the running game. Adding to the issues for the Patriots front is the loss of Andre Carter. He's arguably been New England's best, most consistent player all season, playing well against the run and the pass. He's also been an every down player. Belichick will likely have to turn to a rotation of players to fill the void caused by Carter's loss. He may also have to be more schematically diverse and situationally aware. There's more pressure on the players and the coaches up front to get the job down with Carter out of the mix. That starts against the run and against a player in Bush who's proving himself an every down option with the ability to hit big plays.
2. Marshall Law - While the run defense is a new problem, New England's pass defense is an old one. Like all the way back to opening night in Miami when Brandon Marshall hauled in 139 of Chad Henne's 416 yards passing. Henne is gone, replaced by Matt Moore, but Marshall is still in the mix to give Devin McCourty and the Patriots problems. Marshall is Moore's most productive target. Though he only had three catches a week ago, one was a 65-yard touchdown in Buffalo. He can make big plays after the catch. Though he missed practice time this week with a knee injury, it looks like he'll play. With the defensive front dealing with the loss of Carter and his 10 sacks, less pressure up front could mean more pressure on the secondary. Marshall will test that. Sure Moore has completed less than 50 percent of his passes in each of the last four games. Sure he's topped 200 yards passing in just five of his 11 games. But I think we've come to realize that with the Patriots suspect secondary, anyone who can throw can put up numbers. Even a guy who can't throw - Tim Tebow - made some plays through the air. Don't let Marshall and Moore ruin Christmas Eve.
3. No letdown - The Patriots are coming off a very emotional, important road win in Denver. It's a short week with the potential for lot of outside, real world distractions to creep into the locker room. The Dolphins are a team the Patriots know well and whose record says they're not a challenge. That is a dangerous situation at a time when New England needs to close out games and close out the season. Teams like Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have lost games in recent weeks that severely hurt their postseason standing. A loss to Miami would be a major blow for the Patriots in terms of January. It's important to come out with some fire in front of the home crowd, take care of business, keep the momentum rolling and then, only then, go home to enjoy Christmas. The best present the players and coaches can give themselves - and fans - is a win on Saturday. Conversely, a loss would be a real damper on the holiday spirit.
5. Fresh ground meat - Stevan Ridley has struggled to put together successive good games as a rookie. The last four games in which he averaged better than 4 yards a carry, he either did not play the next game or averaged less than 2 yards a carry with limited production. A week ago he showed a spark and burst with 65 yards on 11 carries, his most attempts of the season. Both games he had double-digit carries this year he's had a run longer than 24 yards. The rookie should have fresh legs at this point with just 59 attempts on the year, and may be the best option for the Patriots to get a more consistent running game going. BenJarvus Green-Ellis should also be relatively fresh having notched just 21 total carries over the last three games, though he continues to struggle to produce. Even Danny Woodhead has looked a bit more explosive of late. Put it all together and the running game that many have been clamoring for over the last month may still have hope. The only question is whether Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien will look to run with more consistency against a Miami defense that ranks No. 3 in the NFL against the run.
6. Playmakers - Sure overall talent and scheme are important. But heading into the postseason, it's also important to have reliable game-changing playmakers. Many careers have been made or enhanced with two- or three-game runs of excellence January/February. Right now the Patriots clearly have a roster of potential candidates for such a story on offense as Brady, Welker, Gronkowski and Hernandez have established themselves as a guys who can get hot and carry the offense at any given time. Defensively, though, there aren't too many guys to point to. Kyle Arrington has seven picks, but is he a guy you'd expect to step in front of a key throw from a good quarterback to a good receiver in the postseason to help swing a game? Up front, with Carter gone, who can you count on for that game-changing strip sack? Who's the key defensive cog who might throw a questionable unit on his shoulders and will it to improved play? There aren't a ton of options, but maybe this is a good week against a questionable quarterback (though Moore has thrown just one interception in the last five games) to get some playmaking momentum rolling on defense. There have been flashes with the fumbles from last week and the two Jerod Mayo picks before that. But it must continue to roll if this defense is going to have a chance to carry its weight in January.
There are plenty of reasons to have some trepidation heading into this game. Miami has been getting the job done more often than not of late, scoring a lot of points and taking care of the football. Moore's lack of turnovers (although he has lost five of 11 fumbles) is a big reason for the success. Bush has been hot on the ground. Marshall still scares me from opening night. And defensively Miami has held opponents to 14 points or less in four of its five wins, nine points or less during a three-game winning streak. But they haven't faced an offense like the Patriots since facing the Patriots in Week 1. I still remember a unit that allowed Brady and Co. to put up 600 yards and 38 points. Bush may run. Marshall may catch. The New England defense may still give up a bunch of yards. But I just can't pick Moore to make the plays he'll need to make to pull off the upset on the road. As long as the Patriots don't come out flat and give the game away - like turning the ball over - I don't see the Dolphins being able to hang for 60 minutes. This one will probably end up like most games this season, with New England scoring 30-something and allowing 20-something. So my prediction reflects that, with an expected 34-20 Patriots victory that puts the team a step closer to the No. 1 seed, home playoff games and a potential postseason run. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!