As New England (11-4) prepares to host Miami (7-8) in Sunday's season finale in Foxborough, the AFC East champs still have the possibility of earning a first-round playoff bye. While the Patriots could end up anywhere from No. 1 to No. 4 in the AFC seeding process, Bill Belichick made it clear that the only way the team could improve its postseason standing would be the beat the Dolphins. Though just recently eliminated from postseason contention Miami seems to still be playing for pride as well as the chance to finish the year with an 8-8 mark to build some positive vibes heading into a second season under Joe Philbin. With the game being flexed to 4:25 on Sunday Patriots fans have a little extra time to get ready root on their favorite time in the finale as New England looks to complete a clean 6-0 sweep of its division for just the second time in franchise history. Until that late afternoon kickoff and as you deal with the impending snowstorm set to hit the region, warm up with this Dolphins Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Playing for keeps? – All week Belichick has made it seem pretty clear that he and his team will be playing for keeps on Sunday. Though the banged up Patriots listed 21 players on the injury report this week, New England seems poised to go for the chance at a bye rather than using this game as an opportunity to rest players and get healthy. How that decision plays out long term won't be known for weeks. But what it means is that a far more talented football team will take the field on Sunday against a Dolphins unit that probably has more fight than talent at this point in the year. With Houston playing a 1 o'clock game, the Patriots will know if the No. 1 seed is up for grabs. With the Broncos also playing a late game, there may be some scoreboard watching on the Patriots sidelines. Opening the game intent on playing to win is different from continuing to play things out in the fourth quarter if there is nothing to be gained. At this point it looks like the usual Patriots who are healthy enough to play against the Dolphins will be on the field to open the game. But will they finish it?
2. Gronk sighting? – Both Belichick and Rob Gronkowski himself made it quite clear that the All-Pro tight end's playing status is still a medical decision at this point, and out of the hands of the player and his coach. Many have voiced the opinion that Gronk needs to see a little regular season action before being thrown to the fire of the postseason, a tune-up if you will. That can't come until he's cleared by the doctors, something that hadn't happened as of Friday morning. If he's not cleared by that point, I don't see the point in getting him out there against Miami. We know he has some of the best, most natural hands we've ever seen in New England and he's been catching the ball for two weeks in practice. We probably expect him to have lost some strength due to the broken forearm and time missed, so his blocking is probably going to be adversely affected when he returns. Would any of that change if they suddenly get him cleared to play Friday night or Saturday and throw him out there against Miami. I don't see the value in it.
3. Bush-whackers! – The Dolphins don't have a ton of playmakers on offense, but Reggie Bush remains someone who has to be dealt with. Bush, who's set to be a free agent this offseason, is on the verge of his second straight 1,000-yard season. He's also Miami's fourth-leading receiver with 33 catches. His 10 combined touchdowns are twice as many as the next closest Dolphin. Bush also comes in hot, as he had three touchdowns – Miami's only three of the day – in last Sunday's win over the Bills. Bush is a combo back who's done a little more traditional behind-the-line running in the last two years, but still has the athletic ability to make plays in space and on the edges. He's a challenge for defenders, especially linebackers, in both the running and passing game. Brandon Spikes missed last week's game to injury, and the Patriots essentially played nickel the whole day. The Dolphins might require more base sets, meaning the Patriots will need three linebackers on the field and making plays against Bush. Bush isn't the most dangerous back in the game, by any means, but he is one of the more dangerous Dolphins playmakers in this game.
4. Wake bored – Cameron Wake enters the game ranked fourth in the NFL with 15 sacks. He also owned Sebastian Vollmer – who was clearly less than 100 percent – in the meeting in Miami between these two teams in early December. The Patriots offensive line has struggled a bit in protecting Tom Brady over the last month, with 11 sacks allowed in the last four games after allowing just a single sack in the four previous games. That needs to be rectified heading into January. Wake is a unique challenge as an elite pass rusher who primarily rushes over the right tackle. Vollmer continues to look very banged up. If he goes, it will be an immense physical challenge for him. If he doesn't play, then Marcus Cannon could be in for a long day. Either way, something needs to be done to keep Wake from making waves in the Patriots backfield and ruining the offense's plan for building some momentum heading into the playoffs. Wake is too much of a professional, took too unique a trip to NFL stardom to be expected to mail it in despite his team's fortunes at this point. The offensive line needs to meet the challenge that Wake and the Dolphins front present.
5. Get Hernandez going – While everyone is counting on the return of Gronkowski to give the Patriots offense a boost heading into the playoffs, getting fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez back on track would also be a big boost. Hernandez has had a very disappointing year. Not only has he missed a lot of time to his ankle injury, he's also dropped way too many balls. Many have related the latter to the former, but that might be just an excuse for a guy who's simply not had a great year. Hernandez needs to get back to catching the balls that are thrown his way and making plays after the catch if this offense is going to be as dynamic as it is capable of being. Maybe for Hernandez to do that, he needs Gronk on the field to make space. Maybe he's still limited by the ankle. Or maybe he just needs to strap it up and play better, play like the key cog on this offense that he should be.
6. Settle the secondary – The back end of the Patriots defense has been a work in progress all season, and that work took a step back in Jacksonville. Rookie starter Alfonzo Dennard was out due to injury and fellow starter Aqib Talib was limited to just a handful of snaps with his own injury. Those guys need to be on the field and playing their best for the defense to have a chance to come together. Devin McCourty has been much better at safety, and he can only be back there if Talib is on the field come January. Kyle Arrington has been much better in the slot than what we've seen of him on the outside. And Patrick Chung is better in a reserve role. The Patriots secondary will not be the strength of the team at any point in the near future, but it needs to be better than it was last week in Jacksonville and during some of its other poor efforts earlier in the year. To accomplish that it must get guys healthy and playing in their preferred spots. Working toward that against Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins so-so passing attack might build a little confidence heading into the postseason. Getting healthy and playing as well as possible in the back end is a major goal for the next couple weeks.
It seems that Belichick is, in honor of Herm Edwards, playing to win the game on Sunday! So that means we can probably expect to see the core of the team take the field against Miami. Maybe the biggest factor in this game, in my opinion, is the way that Tom Brady viewed last week's win in Jacksonville. He seemed angry and embarrassed. Generally when No. 12 is feeling that way, he makes the next opponent pay for it. I think he'll be looking to put together a couple impressive opening drives to get something going early against Miami and show the home crowd what this team is all about. I just envision him with one of those excitable touchdown spikes as the Patriots pull out to a 21-0 lead early. Miami will put up a fight, and these division battles are rarely as easy as I expect them to be. The score could also be affected by playing time for various players and what happens during the Broncos game. All told I see the Patriots getting the job done and taking care of business with the27-14 win to feel good but not great about themselves heading into the postseason.