There is a lot for the Patriots (9-3) to play for Sunday afternoon in Miami against the Dolphins (6-6).
First and foremost it's what Tedy Bruschi dubbed a "hat and t-shirt game" as New England can clinch the AFC East title for the 10th consecutive season, which would secure the players and coaches the celebratory swag that goes with such an accomplishment.
A win would obviously also help keep the Patriots in contention for a first-round playoff bye, either with a more secure hold on the No. 2 spot with three weeks to play or taking a step closer to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Then there are the less tangible factors. The reality is that the Patriots haven't played all that well on the road this season and historically have plenty of issues playing in Miami, especially in December. New England has lost four of its last five trips to Miami, including last December's 27-20 defeat.
A win this week in Miami would improve New England to 3-0 after Thanksgiving, the must-noted key stretch of the season and help build continued momentum toward another postseason run.
Tom Brady doesn't expect it to be easy, though, against a Dolphins team that's 5-1 at home this season.
"Obviously, trying to win the division is a great step and this will really allow us to do that. They're going to really challenge us," Brady said. "It's going to be a physical game – they've been talking about that. I know we're prepared for just having the right mindset to go down there and play a real great complementary game. There's no one phase of our team that's going to win it. They've got a good offense, they play well defensively down there and we're going to have to do a good job taking care of the ball and see if we can go make a bunch of good plays, string together a bunch of those and move the ball down the field and score some points."
And whether people want to acknowledge it or not, the weather of Miami is always a factor worth noting.
"When you look at those stats it is pretty interesting the way some of those teams from the south come up and play in the north and the north play in the south and there's got to be something to it," Brady admitted. "But again, it just comes down to playing good football. We've had some great games down there, too, and hopefully this is a great game for us. But we've got to go earn it. That's certainly the case here."
As the Patriots finalize preparations to test themselves against both the heat and a road game against the Dolphins, here are some of the keys to Sunday afternoon's AFC East affair in Miami.
Climate Control – As Brady pointed out, it's hard to argue against the trends and stats that show the Patriots and other northern teams have issues playing in the hot south. According to the Weather Channel the game-time temperature at Hard Rock Stadium will be in the low 80s Sunday afternoon with 17 mph winds and a chance of rain/thunderstorms. So weather could be a factor on some or many levels. The Patriots, who practiced outside in the New England cold all week, need to meet that challenge. Don't wilt in the heat. Don't let the location of the game dictate the game. History shows it's easier said than done.
Keep it clean – The Dolphins propensity for takeaways is diminished with cornerback Xavien Howard (knee) being rule out, keeping his team-high seven interceptions on the sideline. But Miami still has 18 other takeaways through 12 games, including seven other players with interceptions. Brady threw a pair of picks in last year's December loss in Miami. New England has turned the ball over just once in the last five games after opening the season with multiple giveaways in four of the first seven games. Playing clean in the NFL is a huge first step toward victory, especially on the road in a place where a team has found winning difficult.
Run in the sun (or the thunderstorms) – The Dolphins have the NFL's 30th rush defense, allowing 5.0 yards per carry on the season. At No. 11 through 13 weeks, New England is knocking on the door of having a top-10 rushing attack. That should only improve given the health of the backfield with both impressive rookie Sony Michel and versatile veteran Rex Burkhead healthy and ready to follow Pro Bowl fullback James Develin to success. The Patriots offense has clearly been at its best this season when it's been balanced out with a running game. A few years ago Belichick challenged Steven Jackson and Co. to run the ball in a late-season trip to Miami. They failed. This team is far better suited to answer such a challenge and should prove it on Sunday.
Start fast – Most of the Patriots struggles on the road this season have included slow starts and falling behind. As such they have had to fight back and play the game on their opponent's terms too often. It would certainly be nice to get off to a fast start in Miami against a Dolphins team that's played its best football at home this season, though much of it against suspect competition. The Dolphins have actually been outscored slightly, 41-38, in the first quarter this season. The Patriots have been similarly slightly outscored, 63-61, in the first quarter. Neither team wants to play this game from behind.
Third and strong – The Patriots have had ups and downs in terms of converting third downs this season. Overall the offense ranks 10th in the league (40.8) as it prepares to face a Dolphins defense that's 25th in third down defense. But New England has converted worse than 40 percent of its third downs in six games this season and four of those were on the road, three of them losses. Last December Brady and Co. failed to pick up a single third down in Miami on the way to the loss. Stay on the field and the road road to victory will be much easier, that's clear.
Clean up the kickoffs – The Patriots kickoffs and kickoff coverage has been an issue this fall. New England has the worst opponent drive start in the league, at the 27.4-yard line. Lately, when Stephen Gostkowski has driven it into the end zone for touchbacks everything has been fine. Otherwise, opponents have gotten it out past the 30 or even 35. Even with Miami playing without top returner Jakeem Grant (IR, 29.7 avg. with a 102-yard TD) the Patriots don't need to continue to take chances and give opponents free yards on kickoffs. Unless the win is an issue, kick it into the end zone for the touchback and get to work on defense at the 25.
Prediction: Miami has been much better at home this season. The Dolphins must win to extend their playoff hopes. The Patriots have struggled on the road this fall. New England has really struggled in Miami over the years. On paper this looks like a really tough spot for Belichick's team. But, the Dolphins aren't as good as their record, as the Patriots proved to them with the 38-7 win back in September in Foxborough. Plus, something tells me the team has heard nothing but its road/Miami struggles all week from its coaches and even veteran leaders. That will be a motivating factor. It's also a huge advantage that Howard will miss the game and can't play any role in a turnover-led upset. Now, it's not ideal that New England's own top corner, Stephon Gilmore, popped up on the injury report due to an ankle issue in practice on Friday. Still, the Patriots are the healthier, better team. History and weather be damned, they are going to show it on Sunday afternoon. Michel will get another 100-yard effort. Brady will be the solid, 2018 version of himself. The defense will do its job against a pedestrian Dolphins offense. It will be another complementary victory, this one 27-10 as New England holds an opponent below 20 points for the fifth time in the last six games. It's another division title and another step toward a playoff run that will run through Foxborough.
What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!