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Pats-Dolphins Keys to the Game; Friday notes

A look at the key match-ups in this Sunday's AFC East showdown between division rivals New England and Miami. Plus, news and notes from the Patriots locker room and Friday's practice.

Defense: Go Wild on the Wildcat

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

That age-old adage has never held more true for the Patriots. After being utterly taken aback by Miami's college-style offensive package back in Week 3, New England must be ready to face some sort of iteration of it again. It must also try to anticipate any new wrinkles the Dolphins will add to their arsenal and be able to adjust, mid-game, if they prove effective … something the Pats admittedly weren't able to do the first time around.

The question is, will Miami continue hammering at New England with the Wildcat, or try something new? Either way, the Patriots defense must react better than it did in Week 3.

Offense: Move Cassel Around

Tom Brady'sreplacement is showing marked improvement with each game he plays. One area of major concern remains, however: sacks.

Matt Casselcontinues to be tackled for losses at an alarming rate, and against Miami in September, Dolphins LB Joey Porterwas a one-man wrecking crew with four sacks.

Of late, though, Cassel has been more nimble eluding the pass rush, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has called for more designed rollouts to help his QB avoid defenders.

That strategy could save Cassel – and perhaps the Pats season – on Sunday.

Special Teams: (Too) Many (Un)happy Returns

In back-to-back division games versus Buffalo and New York the past two weeks, the Pats have surrendered big plays in the kick return game. One against the Bills went 80 yards, and one versus the Jets went the distance for a score.

Heretofore, New England had been fairly solid in kick coverage. Whatever they had been doing wrong lately must be fixed by Sunday, because the Dolphins offer a potent special teams attack as well.

If the game is a tight one, this area could prove the deciding factor.

Intangibles: Keeping Pace in the East

The math here is simple.

A loss would at best keep the Patriots in second place in their division and at worst drop them to third. Either scenario would deal a severe blow to New England's chances of securing a playoff spot.

Especially after a heartbreaking loss to the Jets in overtime last Thursday, it's hard to imagine Bill Belichick's troops won't be prepared and motivated to win this weekend.

Miami is a good young team that is still learning how to win, while the Patriots, who are getting younger, still have enough veterans who've been in big games like this one before.

That experience should ultimately decide this contest.

Friday locker room/practice notebook

The team continued to practice in helmets and shells (smaller, softer shoulder pads) inside the Dana-Farber Field House on Friday.

NT Vince Wilfork, who was absent from Thursday's session with a non-injury issue, was back on the field. Three other who've been out all week were not there on Friday either: RB LaMont Jordanand LBs Eric Alexanderand Adalius Thomas.

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