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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Patriots vs. Dolphins

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The 12-3 New England Patriots finish off their regular season against their divisional rivals the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at 1pm. The Patriots need a win, or a Chiefs loss, to seal up the second seed in the AFC and the valuable playoff bye that comes with it, so expect New England to be locked in despite the Dolphins unimpressive 4-11 record and bottom-of-the-league rankings across all important categories.

Despite their record, the Patriots could certainly use the opportunity to continue developing their offense. In recent weeks they've found some success in the areas that have haunted them most of the season, giving Patriots fans reason to believe this team might have another playoff run in them.

But beating the Dolphins is one thing, beating the Chiefs or Ravens will be another and this will be is a good chance to hone the things they'll need most in the playoffs -- running the ball, assimilating receivers N'Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu and stopping the run.

Here are the Keys to one last regular season win!

Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 17 matchup against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 29, 2019.

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Mike Dussault

Patriots.com Writer

Fast Start

The Patriots can't give the Dolphins any sign of hope in this game, they must come out early, put the hammer down and never look back. The team has said all week that they're looking at this like a playoff game -- win and it essentially counts as a Wild Card Weekend win.

The Dolphins will likely come out ready to put in an effort like last week's that saw their offense throw caution to the win and throw the ball all over the Bengals, finishing with 406 passing yards, easily a season high. They're 25th in points-per-game, 27th on third down and 29th overall in DVOA, but 4-4 in their last eight games and have lost the turnover battle just twice in that stretch.

Miami has been competitive and will play with reckless abandon. Start fast, finish strong and don't let the Dolphins have any fun.

Keep the Offense Rolling

The last two weeks have given the Patriots offense reason for hope that they can be balanced and consistent against a good defense. There's no reason to think they should regress against the Dolphins, who will be looking for an early excuse to pack it in for the offseason.

It's hard to find a statistical cause for concern with the Miami defense -- they're 32nd in points-per-game, 25th on third down and 32nd overall in DVOA. The Patriots have had plenty of cupcakes this season but the Dolphins defense might be the worst unit they've faced.

The offensive line, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and N'Keal Harry rose to the occasion against the Bills and a second-consecutive successful game for the ancillary weaponry would be a huge confidence boost as the Patriots head to the playoffs. The more they can pull back on Julian Edelman's reps in this game, the better.

Last year they Pats blew out the Jets 38-3 in the season finale, setting the stage for a Super Bowl run. That kind of offensive performance for a second year in a row would be ideal.

The Boogeymen vs. the NFL

Despite the offensive improvement of recent weeks, the strength of the 2019 Patriots is their defense and if this team is to repeat as Super Bowl champs it will be the defense to lead the way.

Can we really learn anything new about The Boogeymen against one of the worst offenses in the NFL? Probably not. But these are the kinds of offenses the Pats D has feasted on most of this season so why not turn in one more dominant performance and put an exclamation point on their standout season?

The Dolphins have been safer with the ball in the second half of the season and, as has been the case this season, the turnovers will decide whether or not this game is close for any period of time.

Adding to their takeaway totals or lowering their 13.2 points-allowed-per-game average would be a nice way to finish the 16-game schedule and send a statement to potential playoff opponents that The Boogeymen are ready to go.

Special Teams finish special

Just as the defense has been outstanding this year, the special teams and especially the punt return/block team have stood out, blocking a team-record four punts and returning two of them for touchdowns. It's been a fascinating special teams season that's seen the team use four different kickers.

Meanwhile, rookie punter Jake Bailey has had one of the best seasons in the NFL. The punt return and kickoff return teams aren't huge threats but Joe Judge has found creative ways for his special teams units to still make contributions. It's hard to remember a season where the special teams have had more obstacles and still made consistent game-changing plays. They'll be vital for field position and game-changing plays in the playoffs.

Another impact special teams play in the regular season finale would be a nice cap to what has been a fascinating season.

Prediction

The Patriots are treating this like a playoff game and that's all you really need to know. With all three units trending towards peak performance here at the end of the regular season, they should be locked in and ready to dispatch a Miami team that is ready to get going on their rebuild this offseason.

It won't be a season-defining performance but it can certainly be a building block for playoff confidence.

Patriots 35, Dolphins 10

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