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Scouting the Matchups: Steven Jackson could see an uptick in his carries

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

Predicting who'll get the bulk of the carries on a weekly basis for New England is as likely as guessing every number in the weekly Powerball drawing. The loss of Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount has left the Patriots with a versatile cast of characters, none of whom appear capable of shouldering the load in the running game. James White is more of a pass-catching back, so the Patriots figure to go with a timeshare of Brandon Bolden and the recently acquired Steven Jackson, a former first-round draft pick and perennial 1,000-yard rusher for the Rams. If Jackson can rekindle some of the magic that made him a three-time Pro Bowler in St. Louis, he'll have a favorable matchup Sunday against a run defense ranked among the worst in the NFL, thanks in large part to the disappointment that is Ndamukong Suh. Jackson had a slow start in his debut but could see an uptick in his carries against a defense that could be looking toward the offseason. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE DOLPHINS RUN

The underrated Lamar Miller, whose contract is up at the end of the year, will provide a solid challenge for a New England run defense that has finally reverted to its early-season form, even with Jamie Collins just getting back to peak strength and Dont'a Hightower battling recurring knee problems. Despite averaging close to 5 yards per carry and ranking among the league leaders in that category, Miller's carries pale in comparison to those of the elite running backs. He's been underutilized in Miami but figures to get a nice chunk of carries Sunday if the Patriots decide to rest some of their banged-up linebackers. It's hard to predict whether or not Miller will be heavily involved in the game plan on a weekly basis, but even if he is he figures to have a tough time against a run defense that's spent most of the season near the top and is looking to bounce back from a subpar effort against the Jets. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Reshad Jones has had a Pro Bowl-caliber season at free safety, but veteran cornerback Brent Grimes has struggled all season, consistently losing one-on-one matchups, which is a major reason why Miami's pass defense is ranked among the worst in the league. The aforementioned Suh, who's been underwhelming in his first season with Miami, has done little to help a defensive line that should be getting to the quarterback more than it does given the talent at each end. A healthy passing game would pick apart this secondary, but the Patriots are still too banged up to post video-game numbers. Danny Amendola is battling a nagging knee injury, and the offensive line is as banged up as it's been all season. More reps for White might be the answer. Even with so many holes to fill, the Patriots still have the edge thanks to Brady and Rob Gronkowski. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE DOLPHINS PASS

Miami's passing game is dreadful. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill hasn't been any better or worse than he was the past two years, which wasn't the plan when the Dolphins gave him a $96 million contract. He has one reliable weapon in Jarvis Landry, part of last year's explosive rookie receiver class, whose targets more than double anyone else's on the team, but he hasn't found the end zone nearly enough to make Miami a legitimate threat in the passing game. Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler will likely cover Landry with safety help over the top, leaving Logan Ryan and the rest of the secondary to take care of Kenny Stills, Rishard Matthews and the emerging DeVante Parker, who is a big-play threat. Tight end Jordan Cameron could contribute, but he's been underutilized all year. The lack of firepower in Miami's passing game stems from the inconsistency of Tannehill, which figures to continue.  ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS

With too many critical mistakes to mention in the past month and a half, it's hard to consider New England's special teams woes an aberration anymore. The biggest issue right now is finding someone reliable to return punts. The Patriots have auditioned several players in that role but keep coming back to Amendola, whom they'd like to preserve by not having to use him in the kicking game. Keshawn Martin, who also muffed a punt this season, did the job in New York, so the Patriots appear to be trending in the right direction for now. The Dolphins are a middle-of-the-pack team in the kicking game, so barring any additional major errors by New England, they'll have to earn their field position the hard way. Problems aside, the Patriots figure to snap out of it for good at some point. Another solid week will help quell any additional fears.  ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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OTHER FACTORS

Given the health of some of their key players, it's unlikely the Patriots will deploy a full lineup Sunday, even with the No. 1 seed in the AFC still up for grabs. With Sebastian Vollmer and several others getting banged up in New York, long-term health has become as important as playoff seeding. The Dolphins were eliminated from playoff contention a long time ago, but this might be the last game for interim coach Dan Campbell, who's unlikely to return in the same capacity next season, so he'd certainly like to go out with a bang and put a nice footnote on his resume with a win over New England. The Dolphins are always a tough draw at home, and the Patriots have lost their last two games in Miami. They haven't won at Sun Life Stadium since 2012. Whether that has any bearing on Sunday's game is uncertain, but it's still worth noting. ADVANTAGE: DOLPHINS

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