The Patriots (12-3) regular season journey that kicked off on Thursday night in September with a win over the Steelers comes to an end Sunday afternoon in the bright sun of South Florida with the finale against a Dolphins (5-10) team floundering to the finish.
Despite a week of talk-radio-driven, should-you-go-for-it? debate, New England has a lot to play for. A win would secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture, ensuring that the road to Super Bowl 50 once again goes through Gillette Stadium.
Maybe more importantly an impressive performance and win for Tom Brady's troops would build some positive momentum heading into the postseason after an almost unprecedented three losses in the last five games, all after Thanksgiving.
Tom Brady made it pretty clear that he is still very much interested in securing the No. 1 seed, regardless of how that unfolds.
"I think this game is really important for us because, you know, it's a great goal for us to be the No. 1 seed," Brady said this week. "A lot goes into that, a lot of offseason work by a lot of players and coaches, the whole organization to get to this point. There's only one team that gets the No. 1 seed. It's great if you're that team because it means you've done things better than anybody else over the course of the season. We've put ourselves in a good position and hopefully we can go finish strong."
One thing that hasn't been strong enough of late has been Brady's offense. Personnel issues at receiver and protection issues have brought the one potent unit to far more questionable crew.
"I think you'd love to be firing away on all cylinders," Brady said. "At this point there's still a lot of moving parts with our team, our offense, and it's just kind of the way football season is. We're going to do everything we can to try and play our very best this weekend depending on who's out there and things will take shape and what we'll do may be a little bit different. But whoever's out there we need to go out and execute at a high level. I think that's what it comes down to. If it's anything less than that than you don't give yourself as good a chance or opportunity to win the game, so we're going to try and go out there and play our best and see if we can put together four good quarters of football."
Really, though, it might not even take that much. Sure Miami has been a place that's given Brady and the Patriots problems over the years. But these Dolphins are an underperforming team that's already fired their coach and has infighting between players and wives.
While Brady and Co. are playing to hit the New Year with momentum, Miami is ready to move on to the offseason and the process of trying to be better next year.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on in this battle between division foes with very different futures on the immediate horizon, one trying to reestablish itself as the clear team to beat in the AFC and the other trying to get another miserable, underachieving season over with:
Body control- Everyone knows the Patriots are banged up. Receivers Julian Edelman (foot) and Danny Amendola (knee) are practicing but sat out last week. Same for safeties Patrick Chung (foot) and Devin McCourty (ankle). Sebastian Vollmer (ankle) is probably out with a new injury that will once again be a hit to the offensive line. Rob Ninkovich (shin) missed practice early this week and could be a hit to the defensive front. While all those guys have the possibility of being inactive, the Patriots will clearly still be playing to win. That should be Brady will have Rob Gronkowski to throw to. That should mean key, healthy players like Jamie Collins, Malcolm Butler and others will be expected to do their jobs. There's no rest for the weary, just rest for the wounded. Many would like to see Edelman get on the field to knock some rust off and get some reps with Brady before the high expectations of the postseason. If he's completely healthy and there's no risk, then maybe that's an option. Otherwise the fully healthy (is anyone fully healthy this time of year in the NFL?) players should be enough to get the job done.
Start your engines - Clearly the Patriots want/need to start fast in Miami. The offense has not been clicking. So assuming a fast start is possible is probably not exactly justified at this point. Still, Brady really seems desirous of getting some rhythm to his offense. Miami has allowed 30-plus points in three of its last five games. They have plenty of reason to have one foot already into the offseason and probably only need a slight push to give up and play out the string. If Brady, Gronkowski and the rest do their job early it should create an environment for the Patriots to take care of business. The biggest issue is trying to stay on the field. A week after converting just a single third down against the Jets, that can't happen against a Dolphins team that allows 44.4 percent conversions for the season.
Miller time II - The Patriots run defense didn't have a good work day last week in New York. The Jets churned out 143 yards on the ground on 27 carries for 5.3-yard average. The Jets consistently found room to run and hit chunk plays. Playing without Chung and with Dont'a Hightower at less than 100 percent was clearly part of the problem. New England's run defense still ranks as a top-10 unit, but the group needs to get back to the kind of performance that earned it that ranking through the second half of the season. Much of that success actually began by shutting down Dolphins back Lamar Miller to the tune of just 15 yards on nine carries. Miller is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the season and is a dangerous outside runner. He has an 85-yard touchdown on his resume and can be a problem if he let him get to the edges. Rob Ninkovich returned to practice, but if the unit is without the veteran setting the edge could be more of a question mark. The Dolphins want to run the ball under Dan Campbell, even in this finale. New England needs to take that away as the first line of defense and prove the front is ready for the challenges of the postseason.
Big-play reduction - Belichick hasn't been too happy with his team allowing too many big plays in recent weeks. They've come for different reasons. Runs where defenders got walled off. Runs with missed tackles. Pass plays that turned short catches into longer yardage. And guys have gotten behind the secondary a little too frequently. Miami doesn't have what would be described as a dangerous passing attack with Ryan Tannehill having a pretty bad season. Jarvis Landry is the top target with 104 catches, but he's more of a possession guy than a deep threat. DeVante Parker has come on, though, averaging 18.5 yards per catch. The rookie has had a catch of 33 yards or longer in four of the last five games. Whether it's on the ground or in the air, New England needs to tighten up the big plays that could give the Dolphins life, regardless of who is on the field for the defense.
Prediction - The Dolphins are not a good football team. They are 27th in the league in both offense and defense. They have just five wins, just one in the last six games. They don't score enough or stay on the field on third down. They give up too many points and can't get off the field on third down. They don't play to their talent and are coasting to the offseason that will bring a new head coach and new approach. Could they be dangerous? Sure, if Ndamukong Suh takes a cheap shot at someone, maybe. Otherwise Miami just doesn't bring much to the field for the finale. But if the Patriots play the way they have at times in the last few weeks, they can't take anyone lightly. Brady and the offense need to come out early and establish the tone of the game with an early score. From there it should take care of itself. It may benefit the team that it traveled early to South Florida and had a couple days, including a practice at Florida Atlantic, to get ready for the environment. Even if the Patriots sideline just about every player with any sort of injury, there is enough talent to get the job done on both sides of the ball. I can see a 21-3 first-half lead and maybe even Brady giving way to Jimmy Garoppolo for some second-half playing time. In the end I'll got with a 30-9 win for New England to secure the No. 1 seed and hit the postseason bye feeling good and ready to start the defense of its Super Bowl title.
What other things will you be watching for in this Sunday afternoon as the Patriots look to lock up the No. 1 seed by squishing the Phish in South Florida? Let us know with a comment below!