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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Dolphins under water

Back in the offseason when hope sprung eternal in most NFL cities, Miami wide receiver Jarvis Landry declared that the Dolphins (4-6) would beat the Patriots (8-2) twice this season.

As unlikely as that sounded at the time when Landry emphasized that New England was no longer his team’s “big brother” in the division, it’s even more unfathomable a couple days before the first meeting between the two squads.

The defending champions hit the post-Thanksgiving portion of the schedule riding a six-game winning streak that has everyone forgetting all the early-season struggles.

Conversely, Miami hits the home stretch on a four-game losing streak that has the Dolphins once again likely to watch the playoffs from afar.

The issues with Adam Gase’s once again also-rans can be tied directly in to a few factors. Tops on that list is the loss of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill to injury in the preseason, followed by Gase’s curious decision to pull Jay Cutler out of retirement and the broadcast booth to be Miami’s starter.

The Dolphins have subsequently had one of the worst offenses in the game despite their head coach’s offensive background.

But there is more than that. Miami jettisoned lead running back Jay Ajayi to the Eagles at the trade deadline after weeks of Gase questioning the performance and work ethic of many of his “best players.”

In many ways the Dolphins look like a rudderless ship, meanwhile Bill Belichick has guided his team through choppy early waters to hit its midseason stride with improvement on both sides of the ball.

“I think the key thing is understanding that every week is different, especially for us. We put a lot in the game planning and offensively how we’re going to score, defensively how we’re going to keep teams out of the end zone,” safety Devin McCourty said of the improvement throughout the season. “So there’s rarely any crossover or continuation from last week that we can just say here we go again. We’ve got to kind of start from scratch and understand exactly our game plan for that week and how we want to play. I think that in itself kind of creates that mentality of getting better and understanding a new game plan because you have to work at it. We have some idea, if you’ve been here for a while, what we’re going to do but like this morning we come in and it’s a whole new game plan and everyone has to lock in and focus for us to have a good game Sunday. If you have a bad practice Wednesday then you’re trying to catch up. So I think that kind of creates that sense of urgency to each week come back and as Bill says ‘reload the gas tank’ and get ready to go. So now we’re filling it back up and hopefully emptying it by the end of the week.”

As the Patriots prepare to empty the tank against the Dolphins, here are a few potential keys to Sunday’s AFC East battle at Gillette Stadium.

Fresh air – Brady was nearly perfect over the last couple weeks in the thin air of Denver and Mexico City. The aging legend has not thrown an interception in more than a month. He now leads the NFL in attempts, completions, yards, fewest interceptions and rating. After beating up on a bad Raiders pass defense he has the chance to do the same at home (and sea level) against Miami’s pretty bad back end. The Dolphins start two rookies and a shaky second-year player in the secondary. They’ve allowed 18 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions this fall. They allow a combined 104.3 rating. They are probably worse than their No. 17 ranking as a pass defense. Brady should be able to continue to make plays, including down the field to Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski, against Miami.

Be up front about it – Even though the Dolphins are 25th in sacks per pass play, guys like Cameron Wake (6.5 sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (3.5 sacks) remain worthy of attention. New England’s line looks like it could be once again without two starters as center David Andrews (illness) and right tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle) missed practice this week. New England’s line, including center fill-in Ted Karras and reliable right tackle backup LaAdrian Waddle, have been impressive over the last month. They’ve cut down on the hits to Brady, who’s been sacked just once in each of the last two post-bye games. That consistency and improved protection needs to continue in order for Brady to continue to take advantage of the suspect pass defenses that he’s been picking apart.

Sub it is!– Belichick noted in his Friday press conference that the Dolphins are primarily in what is referred to by football insiders as “11” personnel. That means Miami’s offense generally fields one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. So, it seems, a Patriots team that is so often in sub personnel with an extra defensive back already will do so even more often this week. That extra defensive back would seem likely to be a cornerback to match up with Landry and the Dolphins three-receivers. With Eric Rowe (groin) seemingly destined to return after two-plus weeks back on the practice field, that means he could be the choice. Given his extended absence, though, it would seem likely that Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi will also get plenty of snaps. Big Play J, as teammates call Jones, has really evolved into an impressive contributor in his second season. It will also be interesting to see if the Patriots continue to match up top cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler, as they’ve done in recent weeks. If they do, Butler on Landry would be a potential fun battle to keep an eye on.

Time to end the run – New England’s run defense has been suspect most of the season. The group has had to play without defensive tackle Malcom Brown the last few weeks, but he’s been practicing on a limited basis and could be in line for a return against Miami. The Patriots have allowed four straight opponents to average better than 4.2 yards a carry (three better than 5.2 per rush) on the way to 109 or more yards, even with the New England’s offense essentially controlling some of those games. The group has allowed 100-plus yards in seven of 10 games overall. The Dolphins, however, don’t have a great rushing attack ranking 29th in the NFL and having traded lead back Jay Ajayi to the Eagles. Still, Miami has hit big runs from Damien Williams (69 yards) and Kenyan Drake (42 and 66t) in recent weeks. The Patriots have improved on big plays allowed, but Marshawn Lynch did have a 25-yarder last week. New England needs to tighten up the overall run defense and, against Miami especially, guard against the big run. Making the Dolphins one-dimensional with either Jay Cutler or Matt Moore under center is a nice first step toward victory.

*Here’s the situation – *The Patriots have improved greatly in situational football in recent weeks. They red zone numbers have been on the come. Scoring late in the first half has been key, often doubling that up with points on the opening possession of the second half. New England has also done a nice job of getting off to fast starts to play the game from ahead and on its own terms. All those things are easier said than done but also more important than might be expected. Miami looks like a team that wants to pack it in on another disappointing season. Maybe they will try to muster up early fight for a potential divisional road upset. Maybe. But an early score, an early red zone stop or even a takeaway might be a damaging blow to the struggling visitors who are a three-score underdog in Vegas’ eyes.

Prediction: Despite Landry’s prediction (hopes????), Brady and the Patriots remain the clear and obvious class of the AFC East. New England is soaring as the season wears on while Miami is sinking. Offensively the Patriots should be able to throw all over the Dolphins. Dion Lewis can balance it out with what has become his usual 10-plus carries for 50-plus yards against a team that allows 4.2 yard per carry overall. Both are assuming Dante Scarnecchia’s line continues to impress the way it has of late. Defensively the Patriots back end is building but has a clear challenge from decent Dolphins receiver personnel. Obviously the quarterback situation for Miami is suspect, whether Cutler or Moore is under center. (There’s a chance we could see both on Sunday. Yippee!). Oh, and New England has one of the best special teams units in all of football with Stephen Gostkowski back as one of  the best kickers in the game. It should be a nice afternoon at Gillette in terms of weather, though there could be a gusty win. Cull it all together and there is no reason to believe New England will do anything but roll to a comfortable victory against a team that’s near the bottom of the league with a minus-9 turnover differential. *Something in the range of a 34-13 win sounds about right. *"Good" news for Miami is that they will get a chance for revenge in just two weeks down in South Beach. New England is streaking toward the postseason and the Dolphins don’t seem poised to be able to do anything about it.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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