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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Patriots resolve to beat Dolphins

New England sounds like a team looking to close out the season, and open the New Year, with a win in Miami.

Finish strong. Pedal to the metal.

Those are just a couple of phrases used by the Patriots (13-2) this week when asked about Sunday's season finale trip to Miami to take on the playoff-bound Dolphins (10-5).

Certainly the message sent by Bill Belichick down through players like Tom Brady, Devin McCourty and the rest is that New England has intention of resting players or toying with a questionable game plan. This is clearly not 2015, when such issues down the stretch saw the Patriots lose in Miami on the final day of regular season action - the third loss in the final five games of the season - to kick away its shot at the No. 1 overall seed and, some believe, the Super Bowl.

Nope, this time around it sounds like the Patriots - and the Dolphins if you believe impressive young coach Adam Gase - are going to play to win on Sunday. (Cue Herm Edwards in your head!)

Of course that's no guarantee of success. New England has lost three straight trips to what is now called Hard Rock Stadium. Brady has lost eight games at Miami in his career, a place he openly acknowledges he's played some of his worst games. Brady is actually 19-9 overall against Miami, those nine losses half of his 18 career defeats at the hands of AFC East foes.

And this Miami team, though banged up and playing without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, has won nine of its last 10 games to earn a shot at postseason action for the first time since 2008.

A New England win would secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, ensuring that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxborough and not Oakland. It would also ensure that the Patriots wouldn't have to deal with Ben Roethlisberger and the potentially scary Steelers until the AFC title game.

Two teams set to play in the postseason with lots of momentum head into Sunday set to battle it out in the South Florida sun. Each has come a long way since New England's 31-24 Week 2 win at Gillette Stadium. And each hopes it has a long way to go this winter.

PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 17 game against the Miami Dolphins.

First they will fight to the finish. At least that's what they have said they will do.

Here are a few keys to potential Patriots success Sunday afternoon as Belichick's troops hit the New Year looking to play out the 2016 season in winning style.

Run in the sun - The Patriots have run the ball with balanced regularity all season. In recent weeks it has seen LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis share the load. The former, though, hasn't been overly productive down the stretch with consecutive games with averages of 1.8 and 2.5 yards per carry against the Broncos and the Jets. While fans hated a run-heavy approach "led" by Steven Jackson last year, it's probably a favorable game plan this time around. Miami has the NFL's 30th-ranked run defense, allowing 4.9 yards per carry on the season. Blount could use a big game heading into the postseason, picking up some of the momentum of a career year that he's lost in recent weeks. That would, obviously, also open things up for Brady and the passing game, as is always the case. Run right at the Dolphins, through Miami and into the postseason. 

Plan Jay - While the offense has the chance for a big day running the ball on the Dolphins, the defense needs to ensure that Miami's Jay Ajayi doesn't have one of his marquee performances. Though he's dealing with a shoulder injury, the second-year stud is coming off his third 200-yard game of the year. He's averaging 5 yards a carry and, according to Belichick, is one of the best backs in the league. He's also quite capable of big runs, something the Patriots have avoided as a defense most of the season. New England has the No. 3 rush defense in football. Alan Branch and the front have done a nice job most of the year. This is another chance to prove their mettle in the heat against a hot running back.

Cannon's shot at Wake - New England's pass protection has been much improved this season and right tackle Marcus Cannon has been a big part of that success. A couple weeks ago in Brady's other house of horrors in Denver Cannon stonewalled Von Miller. This Sunday offers another Pro Bowl challenge in the form of Cameron Wake. The veteran has returned to form after last season's torn Achilles and his return to the starting lineup helped key Miami run of success toward the postseason. Wake has 11.5 sacks but the way Cannon has been playing may not be in line to add to that total. Brady missed a day of practice this week to the thigh injury that dates back to the big hit from Seattle's Kam Chancellor on Nov. 13. The less Brady is hit or has to move too much in the pocket the better it is for everyone in New England. Cannon's success against Wake will have a lot to do with how comfortable and productive Brady is against Miami's No. 13 pass defense that has picked off 16 passes this season, tied for second most in the NFL. 

No Moore passing - The veteran backup quarterback Matt Moore has played relatively well in his two-plus games, throwing six touchdowns and two interceptions with a 113.4 rating on the year. He has weapons to work with like Jarvis Landry (85 catches for 1,060 yards and 3 TDs) and DeVante Parker (51, 699, 4), each of whom topped 100 yards in Miami's comeback efforts Week 2 in Foxborough. The Patriots pass defense, though, has been playing solid football and building its confidence in back end. The unit has been a big part of not allowing a touchdown in the last nine-plus quarters of action. Matt Patricia has been drawing up impressive combinations of coverage (zone/man) and pressures (blitzes/stunts) in recent weeks. More of that could be in store for Moore and his troops.

Lineup watch - Clearly the assumption is that everyone who is healthy is going to play against Miami. But how long will the key veterans and starters stay on the field? That could be decided by the way the game plays out, how the action unfolds, what Miami is doing on its side and other factors. It's also worth watching to see how much Michael Floyd plays and how is progression in the offense is coming along. And will we see a quarter-plus of action from Jimmy Garoppolo for the second straight week with his trade value a major media talking point of late? It also is possible that the cold-weather Patriots playing in the hot Miami sun might rotate more players through the lineup than normal. Tune in to find out.

Numbers game - Can the Patriots close out the year No. 1 in scoring defense? (Yes, they will.) Will Julian Edelman get to 100 catches and 1,000 yards? Can Blount add to his touchdown total to give him the second-most in Patriots history? Will the performance allow the offense to finish as a top-5 unit? Top 5 or 10 on defense? Will Brady close out the year with the kind of numbers he might need to lock down the MVP?

Prediction - The Patriots have been rolling. They should be able to run the ball against Miami's suspect run D. They should be able to slow the Dolphins ground game, one that's had plenty of quiet days to balance out Ajayi's explosive performances. Brady and the passing attack may be somewhat undermanned - Danny Amendola has already been out and now Malcolm Mitchell is likely to join him - but there are still enough weapons to get the job done to close out the season. New England should run for 130-plus yards and Brady should find the end zone a couple times. The defense should be more than good enough to keep Miami from scoring anywhere near the 30-plus points it has put up in consecutive weeks. Even with that the Dolphins are just plus-4 in points this season (349 scored/345 allowed). Assuming Brady doesn't have one of those how-do-you-explain-it? days in Miami, New England should run away for the27-13 win to finish the year at 14-2 and head into the bye with healthy momentum.

What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!

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