Gillette Stadium – the Patriots are in a do-or-die scenario against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, with pre-game bringing both good and bad news in terms of player availability.
Starting with the positive news, Patriots tight end Hunter Henry (knee) and running back Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle) are officially active for New England. Henry suffered a knee injury when he collided with teammate Jonnu Smith on the first third down of last Sunday's loss to the Bengals and did not return, but gave the "thumbs up" in the locker room this week.
The Patriots game-day inactives are DB Marcus Jones (concussion), WR DeVante Parker (concussion), TE Jonnu Smith (concussion). CB Jalen Mills (groin), Shaun Wade, Kevin Harris, and Sam Roberts.
Although Henry will play through an injury, Smith was ruled out earlier in the week after failing to clear concussion protocol, so the Pats tight end depth chart will be Henry and practice squad elevation, Matt Sokol. The hope is that Henry can take on his usual workload as Sokol plays a reserve role, but the 2019 undrafted rookie could have to play a more significant role than his eight snaps in his first standard elevation of the season back in Week 5 against the Lions.
Patriots running back Damien Harris, who has missed the last four games with a thigh injury, is active for the first time since Thanksgiving night in Minnesota. Harris and Stevenson should give the Pats a running game on Sunday.
The other major pre-game development for the Patriots is on the defensive side of the ball for New England's secondary. After placing rookie CB Jack Jones (knee) on injured reserve on Saturday, the Pats also ruled out third-round pick Marcus Jones and will be without veteran Jalen Mills for the fifth-straight game due to a nagging groin injury.
Mills returned to the final practice of the week on Friday in a limited capacity, giving some optimism that the sturdy vet would be able to play versus Miami. However, Mills is officially inactive, which means the Patriots will be very short-handed in the secondary.
Heading into a matchup against Dolphins wide receiver duo Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, Bill Belichick's defense will likely field a starting cornerback trio of Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, and in a surprising move, either 53-man roster addition Tae Hayes or practice-squad elevation Quandre Mosley.
In a bit of a surprise, second-year CB Shaun Wade is a healthy scratch. Wade allowed a touchdown in one snap last week and has looked slow in coverage in limited reps this season. Still, his roster spot is supposed to provide depth at cornerback, and even with three corners out, Wade is a game-day inactive.
The team signed CB Tae Hayes and elevated CB Quandre Mosley from the practice squad this week. Hayes has NFL experience with five games under his belt in Carolina earlier this season, while Mosley is an intriguing size-speed rookie who ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash at Kentucky's Pro Day. Hayes and Mosely could be a factor if Wade struggles, but it'll likely be the 2021 fifth-rounder to start.
As far as the game plan goes with a banged-up secondary, the Patriots won't reinvent the wheel this late in the season. We'll probably see plenty of zone coverage on early downs to protect against big plays, with more aggressive man coverage bracket calls on third downs. That'll be when New England's backup third corner will need to step up with Dolphins backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater looking to one-on-one matchups.
Lastly, New England didn't activate punter Jake Bailey from injured reserve this week, who is now 11 days into his 21-day window for activation. The Pats didn't elevate practice-squad kicker Tristan Vizcaino, so it'll be kicker Nick Folk on kickoffs. Folk has only registered one touchback in 25 kickoff attempts, making kickoff coverage a focus.
Taking a look at the Dolphins inactives, stud edge rusher Bradley Chubb, left tackle Terron Armstead, and star cornerback Xavien Howard are officially inactive. Both Dolphins Pro Bowlers were questionable and deemed game-time decisions by head coach Mike McDaniels. The Pats catch another break there, along with facing backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater instead of Tua Tagovailoa.
New England is playing to keep their season alive, with a loss eliminating them from postseason contention. With a win, the Pats could string back-to-back wins together to clinch a playoff berth or can get some help to make the playoffs at 8-9. Ultimately, the Patriots must win this week, or their season will end in Week 18.
The Patriots host the Miami Dolphins in a divisional showdown with kickoff at 1 pm ET on Sunday.