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Scouting the Matchup: Patriots will keep Miami on the run

The Patriots need to contain Miami’s Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins ground game.


The Patriots have showcased their versatility in recent weeks by featuring Dion Lewis more prominently in the rushing attack, providing an elusive, shifty change of pace to LeGarrette Blount's deliberate, downhill running style. The team rushed for at least 90 yards in five consecutive games between late November and December and entered Week 16 ranked among the top 10 in the NFL. Despite a stellar season by Ndamukong Suh, Miami is ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing defense at 30th overall. Losing safety Reshad Jones, the heart of the run defense, has been tough to overcome but the Dolphins haven't stopped the run consistently all year. They enjoyed mild success for a three-week stretch in October but have now allowed 100 or more rushing yards in six consecutive games, including 195 to the woeful 49ers. Advantage: Patriots


Jay Ajayi's emergence came at the right time for Miami, which committed to veteran Arian Foster in the offseason, only to watch Foster bow out in Week 2 with yet another injury. Ajayi, a former fifth-round pick, exploded for back-to-back 200-yard games in Weeks 5 and 6 to help spark Miami's six-game win streak and picked up 204 in Week 16 in Buffalo. Since the controversial Jamie Collins trade, the Patriots have actually improved in stopping the run and only allowed two teams to crack the 100-yard mark over the past seven weeks since returning from the bye. While Ajayi and Kenyan Drake exploded against the Bills last weekend, the Patriots are now ranked among the top five in the league in rushing defense, thanks largely to the play of Alan Branch and the rest of the front seven. Advantage: Patriots


Despite losing Jones and rookie cornerback Xavien Howard to season-ending injuries, the Dolphins have pieced together a solid secondary with an unexpected mix of unheralded veterans and mid-round draft picks, led by ball-hawking playmaker Byron Maxwell. The problem is Maxwell is dealing with an ankle injury and may not play. The Dolphins entered the stretch ranked among the top 10 in pass defense and interception rate and have been near or at the top of the league in third-down defense for most of the season. With Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve and Danny Amendola nursing a bum ankle, the Patriots haven't been as explosive in recent weeks. As long as Tom Brady is the quarterback, New England's passing attack is always a threat, but Miami's pass rush can cause problems for any offense, led by Suh and Cameron Wake, both of whom have enjoyed tremendous comeback seasons. The injuries have hurt Miami's secondary, however. Advantage: Patriots


Ryan Tannehill torched New England's secondary in the second half of Miami's Week 2 loss at Gillette Stadium but recently sprained two ligaments in his knee and is unlikely to play in the season finale. Backup Matt Moore made headlines with a four-touchdown performance in his first start in place of Tannehill, but the odds of the career backup sustaining that kind of production are slim, especially against a New England pass defense that has been forcing more turnovers in recent weeks. The Patriots are getting much better coverage in their base nickel package and are producing takeaways at a much higher rate over the past month than at any point this season. Jarvis Landry, Miami's best receiver, has been hot in recent weeks, but the Patriots are trending in the right direction defensively. Advantage: Patriots


Miami safety Walt Aikens has emerged as a special teams ace in December by scoring a two-point conversion on a blocked extra-point attempt in addition to a punt-block scoop-and-score in back-to-back games, while captain Michael Thomas has played at a Pro Bowl level in the eyes of special teams coach Darren Rizzi. Last weekend in Buffalo, Drake and Jakeem Grant chipped in with kick returns of 39 and 41 yards, respectively, in Miami's 34-31 overtime win. The Patriots finally appear to have sorted out their kicking issues with Stephen Gostkowski back on track but have otherwise been maddeningly inconsistent on special teams. They blocked a field goal and subsequently muffed a punt and fumbled a kick return in the same game, so you never know what you'll get each week. Advantage: Dolphins


The Dolphins managed to lock down their first playoff berth since 2008 with their overtime win in Buffalo coupled with Kansas City's win over Denver a night later. Miami has been hot in recent weeks, winning nine of its last 10 games. The Patriots already know they'll be in the postseason and will have at least a first-round bye, but don't expect them to take their foot off the pedal following last year's meltdown in Week 17 in Miami in which they failed to play with a sense of urgency, costing them a shot at the No. 1 seed. The Patriots crushed the Jets in Week 16 and now control their own destiny this weekend, needing a win in Miami to wrap up the No. 1 seed for 2016. There is no room for a letdown with the red-hot Raiders on their heels, so the Dolphins will get New England's best. Advantage: Patriots

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