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Keys to the Game presented by Carmax: Divisional road battle looms for Patriots in Miami

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The Patriots head south for their third-straight and final road game of the 2020 season to take on the Miami Dolphins in a game that both teams need to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Since meeting in the season opener, the teams have had somewhat divergent roads to knocking on the playoff door. The Patriots have been up-and-down, while the Dolphins made the move to rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and have gotten some promising early returns. Since starting 1-3, the Dolphins have gone 7-2 and are coming off a hard-fought loss to the conference-leading Chiefs.

Miami currently holds the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC and have a difficult final slate, as they'll travel to Las Vegas and Buffalo after wrapping their final home game against New England. A recent spate of injuries to their offensive weaponry could be a huge factor and the Dolphins try to solidify their place in the standings and maintain their grip on a ticket to the post-season.

New England's playoff hopes are hanging by a final string, they cannot afford to lose another game and must get all kinds of help to squeak their way into a post-season appearance. Regardless, the Patriots need little extra motivation against the Dolphins, who were in a similar position at the end of last season but still played hard and cost the Patriots a valuable bye week with a stunning Week 17 defeat.

Here are the Keys to the Game presented by Carmax!

Attack Tua

All week the Patriots raved about Tua's decision making, he's thrown just one interception on the season, and is giving his team a chance every week by not making mental mistakes. That kind of veteran poise is something the Patriots defense will have to knock off of him this week.

Few defenses are better at cooking something up than Bill Belichick's and with nine-straight wins over rookie quarterbacks, dating back to 2013, they'll certainly have something in store for Tagovailoa.

The bigger question will be the execution. We've seen the Patriots defense oscillate between dictating and getting dictated to, and the difference is often apparent in the first few possessions. The bottom line is when the Patriots defense is attacking, they're at their best. When they're on their heels, searching for answers against the run like they were against the Rams, they're at their worst.

While they'll get some help from Miami's injuries, the Patriots defense has to be ready to take it to them, forcing Tue to expend mental energy on every snap by trying to decipher what they have up their sleeve.

If they can make Tua look like a rookie, they'll give their offense the chance to put up enough points to win.

Don't give it away

A major theme from the Patriots this week was not turning the ball over. That's always been important for any Patriots team, but especially this one against a Miami team with the third-best turnover ratio in the league.

Miami has 25 takeaways, tied for best in the league, and has multiple takeaways in seven of their 13 games. They have at least one in every game this season and have hit four in two different games. The opener against the Patriots was one of only three times this season they've lost the turnover battle and the only time they lost it by more than one turnover.

Meanwhile, the Patriots have just three turnovers in the last six games after have 12 during their four-game losing streak. They've been better of late no question, but this week more than ever it absolutely critical that they don't revert to their bad ball security ways.

Red zone finish

For as bad as the Rams game unfolded, some red zone finish by the Patriots offense might've actually made it a close game. But New England wasn't able to get into the end zone on four different trips and ended up with just three points.

Miami has an aggressive defense that will come out attacking Cam Newton and the Patriots offense. They'll be much better prepared than they were in the season opener and points will again be at a premium.

Expect Josh McDaniels to pull out all the stops to make sure the Patriots get something going offensively. McDaniels admitted the Dolphins would have something new to throw at the Patriots, but that also signals that offensive coordinator is planning the same for them.

In the absence of explosive scoring plays, every point will be at a premium in this contest and the Patriots must finish their long drives with touchdowns if they want to get in control of the game. They're a far superior team when playing from in front, when their biggest strengths – the ground game and pass defense – can shine. But without a lead those strengths can be non-factors, especially if they fall behind by multiple scores.

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch ahead of the Patriots matchup against the Miami Dolphins.

All eyes on the young guys

Ultimately, the silver lining that can be taken from any of these final three performances is the continued development from the young players who have ascended late this season. While Michael Onwenu and Kyle Dugger have seen the most extensive action, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Justin Herron and Myles Bryant continue to carve our roles and make strides.

Most intriguing will be the performances of the rookie tight ends Devin Asasi and Dalton Keene, who figure to see their most significant action of the season. With a full week of actual practice, both should be better prepared for expanded roles.

And it's not just the rookies. Ja'Whaun Bentley, Chase Winovich and receivers N'Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers all continue to stack experience. The team could use all of them to emerge as consistent contributors going forward. Maybe it's asking a lot for all of them to shine this weekend, but with a team that will be getting younger, the more experience they can acquire now, the better for later.

Prediction

With Miami's offense banged up and their defense playing with something to prove against the Patriots offense, it's likely that this game will be a low-scoring defensive battle. The Pats can't count on Miami to beat themselves with turnovers or poor special teams play, they'll have to seize the victory by executing in key moments.

This season hasn't gone the way the Patriots would like, but a win in Miami over a solid Dolphins team, especially in the face of last year's disappointing flame out against them at home, would be a nice reminder that New England isn't quite as far off as some would have us believe.

The Pats confound Tua and make just enough critical plays through the air to pull out a feel-good win.

Patriots 17, Dolphins 16

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