WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
The Patriots have already dealt with the loss of Jeremy Hill and are now will be without Rex Burkhead as well. Burkhead was placed on injured reserve and won’t be eligible to return until Week 12. That’s not good news for a running game that already was stuck in neutral. Rookie first-round pick Sony Michel and James White are the lone options in the backfield, and White is much more effective as a pass catcher. Michel enjoyed a heavy workload the last two games with limited success and now tries his hand against a run defense that has been surprisingly strong in September. Expectations for Miami’s front seven were low when Ndamukong Suh left via free agency, but the Dolphins smothered Tennessee in Week 1, led by tackle Davon Godchaux, and then shut down a Jets team that rushed for 169 yards in its season opener the following week. Michel missed all of preseason, so it may be a while before he finds his rhythm. This running game is still a work in progress.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
Tom Brady has a new weapon with Josh Gordon in the fold, and while it may take time for the two to get on the same page, Gordon’s presence alone figures to be a big boost for other receiving threats who are the frequent target of double coverage, notably Rob Gronkowski. Will Gordon have enough left in the tank after missing all of 2015 and 2016? Gaining separation against Miami’s swarming defensive backs will be a tall task Sunday. Miami has invested four high draft picks and plenty of free-agent dollars into its secondary over the past few years, and it’s finally starting to pay dividends. Through three weeks, Miami leads the league with seven interceptions and has allowed the lowest passer rating for opposing quarterbacks. Safety Reshad Jones, linebacker Kiko Alonso and edge rusher Robert Quinn are on fire right now, and cornerback Xavien Howard is emerging into one of the best cover men in the league.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS RUN
After trading workhorse Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia last season, the Dolphins are now working with a committee approach at running back featuring Kenyan Drake and veteran newcomer Frank Gore, who is now ranked fourth all-time in the NFL in rushing. Drake figures to be the go-to running back after leading the league in rushing over the final five weeks of 2017. The Patriots run defense has struggled for more than a year at this point and last week in Detroit was eye-opening. Despite working against a team that routinely finishes near the bottom in rushing, the Patriots couldn’t prevent rookie Kerryon Johnson from becoming the first Lions back to top 100 yards in a span of 70 games. New England’s front, specifically Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton, has struggled trying to control the point of attack. The struggles stopping the run go back through most of last season, and until it changes in 2018 the Patriots don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS PASS
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury and has been incredibly accurate thus far, but the Dolphins don’t take a lot of chances down the field and are relying heavily on receiver Jakeem Grant in the passing game while mixing in occasional trick plays. Sunday against Oakland, receiver Albert Wilson threw a touchdown in a comeback win over Oakland. DeVante Parker is finally back on the field after missing two weeks due to a broken finger, which will take some pressure off big-play threat Kenny Stills and give Danny Amendola a little more freedom underneath. New England’s depth on defense has taken a hit in recent weeks but the Dolphins aren’t consistently explosive enough to exploit those weaknesses.
The Patriots have had a few hiccups in kickoff and punt return coverage this year and now must face the explosive Grant, who returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown in the season opener and is equally dangerous on punt returns (the first of his two career touchdowns occurred on a 72-yard punt return in 2016). They’re also dealing with a revolving door in the punt return game, first with the recently exiled Riley McCarron and now perhaps Cyrus Jones, who has a rare second opportunity to make amends in New England. The Patriots signed Cordarrelle Patterson hoping he’d be a weapon both on kickoff returns and in the receiving game, but he’s yet to make an impact thus far. Under Bill Belichick’s guidance, the Patriots usually boast one of the league’s top special teams units but aren’t quite there yet as October approaches. The steadiness of Stephen Gostkowski, especially at Gillette Stadium, is worth the edge however.
The AFC East race is usually over by late October with New England well ahead of the pack, but as dominant as the Patriots have been during the Belichick era, they’ve only finished undefeated against division opponents twice in the last 17 years. There’s always a slip-up somewhere, and it’s usually either against the Jets or Dolphins. The good news is this game is in Foxborough, where the Patriots haven’t lost to Miami since the infamous Wildcat game 10 years ago. The Dolphins are red-hot right now and own sole possession of first place in the division at 3-0, while the Patriots are vulnerable without Julian Edelman and now have to reshuffle the deck defensively due to recent injuries. If they’re due for a slip-up against a division rival, it’d be this week, but it’s hard to picture it happening at Gillette or with a healthy Brady, who has never lost to Miami at home.