WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
The Patriots should be able to find plenty of running room in this contest since the Dolphins run defense has been porous all season. Through its first 11 games, Miami ranked 29th among NFL teams against the run, and the Dolphins have allowed at least 175 yards on the ground five times this season. The Dolphins surrendered a season-high 248 yards rushing in a 32-21 loss to Detroit. For the Patriots, the return of guard Shaq Mason paid immediate dividends against the Jets in Week 11, when they rushed for 215 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry during a 27-13 victory. Rookie Sony Michel had his best game as a pro that day by gaining 133 yards on 21 carries (6.3 per carry). The Dolphins have allowed nine rushing touchdowns this season.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
The Dolphins have intercepted 19 passes in their 12 games, but six of those interceptions came on passes thrown by Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. It’s unlikely that the Miami defense will be able to confuse New England quarterback Tom Brady like it did Darnold, however. Cornerback Xavien Howard (seven), safety T.J. McDonald (three), linebacker Kiko Alonso (three) and safety Reshad Jones (two) all have multiple interceptions for Miami this season. Howard, the Dolphins best corner, is dealing with a knee injury and is considered week to week according to coach Adam Gase. Although some have faulted Brady for being inaccurate at times this year, he enters this contest with 20 touchdown passes and eight interceptions this season. He’s done a better job of spreading the ball around as of late and generally finds the matchups that best suit the team in a given week. Without Howard, the Dolphins will struggle.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS RUN
Old man Frank Gore has become Miami’s featured back. He’s the No. 4 rusher in NFL history and is averaging 4.4 yards per carry this season. That’s the highest per-carry average for any back 35 or older in NFL history. Gore remains a tough runner who can get yards after contact, and he is still shifty enough to make defenders miss as well. Alabama product Kenyan Drake is an excellent No. 2 back. He has each of Miami’s four rushing touchdowns this season but has been used more in the passing game. The Patriots have allowed more than 100 yards rushing in three of their last six games, including 150 in a loss to Tennessee. New England’s success against Gore and the Miami running game should go a long way toward determining the outcome.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS PASS
The Dolphins made quarterback Ryan Tannehill the eighth overall selection in the 2012 draft, but the jury is still out on whether Miami should stick with him past this season. He signed a six-year, $95 million deal in 2015, but the Dolphins can get out of that deal in March. Tannehill missed a little more than a month this season with problems with his throwing shoulder. The Dolphins are 4-3 with him in the lineup. He’s thrown for 13 touchdowns and has been intercepted six times in those seven games. Former Patriot Danny Amendola is Miami’s leading receiver with 48 receptions for 469 yards, but he missed last week’s game against Buffalo with a knee injury and is questionable. The Patriots have 19 sacks this season. Defensive end Deatrich Wise leads the way with 4.5, but the Patriots have been dialing up the pressure more frequently lately.
Originally it looked like Miami would have a significant edge in this area, particularly since New England has struggled in kick coverage all season. The Dolphins, on the other hand, entered last Sunday’s game against Buffalo ranked second in punt-return average and third in kickoff-return average. Miami returner Jakeem Grant was placed on injured reserve last week, however. Grant scored on a punt return and on a kickoff return this season before he injured his Achilles’ tendon during Miami’s loss to Green Bay. The Dolphins appear to have an excellent kicker in rookie Jason Sanders, who has made 16 of 17 field goal attempts this season, including eight of nine from beyond 40 yards. He made a game-winning 47-yard field goal in Miami’s 31-28 victory over Chicago. Bill Belichick had a ton of praise for coach Darren Rizzi’s special teams units.
The Dolphins have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team when it comes to home and away games this season. Miami has a 5-1 record at Hard Rock Stadium but is 1-5 when it has to travel. New England’s problems away from home have been well-documented. The team’s three losses have come at Jacksonville (31-20), at Detroit (26-10) and at Tennessee (34-10). New England also submitted average performances in road wins against Chicago, Buffalo and the Jets. The fact that they’re playing at home is one of the reasons some are giving Miami a shot at pulling off an upset.