Technically, there is no such thing as a must-win game in September.
If the Patriots (1-2) fall to the Dolphins (3-0) on Sunday afternoon, Bill Belichick's team would not be eliminated from achieving any goals this season. And if Miami were to win its first game in New England since 2008, it would in no way secure anything for Adam Gase's squad.
Still, this Week 4 battle certainly has an extreme level of importance to the Patriots looking to avoid a three-game losing streak and falling further behind the upstart Dolphins.
Winning cures all, and New England has plenty of concerns that would certainly benefit from the medicine of victory.
Offensively, Tom Brady and Co. continue to search for consistency and production, both on the ground and through the air. Defensively, New England has struggled against both the run and the pass, likewise seeking an identity.
It's still September. There a lot of football left to be played in the marathon NFL season. But early-season holes certainly can also lead to late-season disappointment.
To open the 2018 season the Dolphins are hot and the Patriots are not. But none of that really matters Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. Cliché or not, it really will be about simple execution in this game with the matchups it presents on both sides of the ball.
Must the Patriots win? No, but it sure feels like they need to.
As the hours count down to this first key AFC East battle of the season, here are a few Keys to keep an eye on in this meeting between the streaking Dolphins and struggling Patriots.
Third down – The Patriots have struggled to stay on the field on offense in recent weeks and struggled to get off it on defense. That's a bad mix. New England is 29th in the NFL in third down offense and 30th on defense. Miami, though, has its own issues on football's money down, ranking 27th in the league in third down offense and 24th on defense. Whichever team can show improvement on third down on both sides of the ball – which is also obviously connected to efforts on first and second down – could have an edge in this battle. The Patriots just have to be better on third down than they've been. Don't they?
Star power – At some point, as Brady has stated in various ways, New England's best players need to start playing like it. Offensively that means the quarterback himself needs to lead the way to a more efficient passing game and probably needs to lean even more on Rob Gronkowski and James White. Opening day Brady had no problem throwing to Gronk when he was covered, but the last couple weeks he's been less aggressive to his tight end. Throw 87 the damn ball, as Keyshawn Johnson might say. Defensively key cogs like Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty and Dont'a Hightower are paid to be the leaders of the unit. That's not really shown up so far. Even Gilmore has had his ups and downs, allowing three touchdowns in the last two weeks. There has been a lot said over the years of the Patriots having a strong middle class and getting a lot of contributions from complementary players, but right now New England needs more impactful contributions from its well-paid stars.
Help on the way? – Defensively the performance in Detroit came without two of the unit's best options in defensive end Trey Flowers (concussion) and safety Patrick Chung (concussion). Both were limited in practice this week and could be in line for a return to action. That would be key against a diverse Dolphins attack that spreads the field and the ball around. The more reliable, knowledgeable defenders on the field the better the chances for stops on defense. That said, New England is likely to be without cornerback Eric Rowe yet again, which is less than ideal.
Coach 'em up – A lot has been debated in regards to the Patriots personnel early this season. Less, though, has been debated regarding the coaching ranks. Right now, at least based on production, there is work to be done by the staffs on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, in particular, should be able to squeeze more out of his unit than has been the case through three weeks. Gase probably has the same or less to work with in Miami and has creatively schemed up big plays and a good-enough attack. McDaniels, reportedly the highest-paid assistant in football, must be expected to do more to create opportunities for his players, regardless of who they are. Similarly, the transition to a Brian Flores-led defense has been rocky at best. Gone is all the talk of his simplified playbook allowing guys to play faster, replaced by struggles in pretty much every area. It's on the players to play better, no doubt. But the coaches, as Belichick himself always suggests, need to start to win the battle of the sidelines on a weekly basis.
No big plays – Miami has been efficient enough to win on offense, but the Dolphins haven't exactly been the 2007 Patriots. Gase spreads the ball around to a lot of guys. One thing that has worked well, though, is big plays. Some come off tricks. Some come off execution or mistakes by the defense. Regardless, Miami has had touchdown catches of 52, 74 and 75 yards. It has three different ball carriers with runs of 20 yards or longer, including the quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Solid tackling and assignment-sound football are keys to keeping Miami from hitting big plays that could change the game. Sometimes, that's easier typed than done.
The energy or the play? – Which came first? Though Belichick has shot down the idea that New England has lacked energy and effort of late, it's been a major talking point with fans and media. Football is an emotional sport. It's hard sometimes to know, though, whether energy leads to playmaking or playmaking leads to energy. Either way, the Patriots need to find a way to get some positive emotional momentum rolling against Miami. That could be a fast start on offense or a big play early on defense. It could be helped out by the home crowd. The Patriots need to find a spark right now, before it's too late.
Prediction: The Patriots haven't had a three-game losing streak since 2000, before Tom Brady took over as starter. It's hard to imagine that coming now with Brady and Belichick still guiding the ship. So I'm not going predict a three-game losing streak now. On paper the Patriots are at least every bit as talented as the undefeated Dolphins. Give credit to Miami for taking care of its business against the Titans, Jets and Raiders. New England wasn't able to do the same the first three weeks. I expect Brady and Gronkowski to work together to jumpstart the passing attack. I expect Sony Michel to be leaned on again and find more success, even against a Miami run defense allowing just 3.3 yards per carry. Being at home should be a big help. And the defense should avoid big plays enough to get the job done, even if Tannehill is playing extremely well to open the year completing 73 percent of his 74 passes on the way to a 121.8 passer rating that's among the best in the game. The Patriots are being doubted right now as September draws to a near. While I don't think all the questions will be answered against Miami, I think a 29-21 victory will help quiet down the critics just a bit.
What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!