Saturday, December 14, 2013

Four Point Stance: Patriots at Dolphins


After two straight wins, the Miami Dolphins (7-6) are in position to give their fans the gift of a playoff berth, but they'll need some very attainable help to do so. In front of them this week are the division-leading New England Patriots (10-3), who have the chance to formally wrap up their fifth-straight AFC East title with a win.

The Patriots will factor heavily in Miami's postseason chances, as after this game they'll host the current leading contender for the sixth and final spot, the Baltimore Ravens, next week. Miami doesn't need to win this week, per se, but will need to win at least one more than Baltimore does over the final three games, and upsetting the Patriots would be a huge boost.

New England, despite having the division all but mathematically clinched, has something else to play for, as well. The Denver Broncos' surprise home loss on Thursday gives the Patriots the inside track to the AFC's number one seed. Win out, and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs is theirs.

Recently, slow starts have forced Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to resort to the miraculous to keep winning, which includes a 14-point comeback in Week 8 against these Dolphins. This time around, Miami hopes it has enough firepower to keep its rival down for good and keep pushing towards a playoff spot.

When the Patriots have the ball:
The New England offense averages nearly a full touchdown more per game when Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, but after a torn MCL and ACL suffered in last week's comeback win, it'll be without him for the rest of the stretch run. Expect the Patriots to adjust by utilizing tailback Shane Vereen heavily in the passing game, using him this week to put pressure on the coverage skills of the Dolphins' under-performing linebacker corps. Slot receivers Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman will also hold matchup advantages with Miami's safeties and nickel cornerbacks so, as he always does, expect Tom Brady to target the mismatches early and often.

The Dolphins' counter punch will need to come from the strength of their defense, the defensive line and pass rush. In last year's matchup in South Florida, the Patriots ran the ball at will and used their ground game to close out the win. It's important that Miami's front seven is able to prevent a repeat and, as odd it might sound, force Tom Brady to beat them with his arm. New England will need to contend with a pass rush that's tallied 13 sacks in the last four games. In particular, the edge rushing trio of Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan will be a tough test even for the Patriots' top tier offensive line.

When the Dolphins have the ball:
Despite the icy Pittsburgh conditions, the Dolphins offense continued heating up last week, scoring over 30 points for the first time this season in a thrilling win over the Steelers. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been especially warm, recording a passer rating above 80 every game since the first matchup with the Patriots. In that game, the Patriots' defense dared Tannehill to test them deep with receiver Mike Wallace, and as they expected, he struggled connecting with his best receiver. New England's defensive front then proceeded to exploit the Dolphins' atrocious offensive line and came up with six sacks of Tannehill.

Miami has since improved in both areas; Wallace has been more productive, and the offensive line has gotten better after some personnel shuffling. Tight end Charles Clay has also emerged as an effective third option and the running game, which gashed the Patriots for 156 yards in that last meeting, has developed more consistency. The Dolphins are playing better on this side of the ball, but will still need a well-conceived gameplan to be effective against one of the best game-planners in the league.

Vereen vs Miami's linebackers. It's no secret that the Dolphins' starting linebackers, Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, have been a weakness of an otherwise very good defense. The Patriots undoubtedly recognize that, and will use their dynamic tailback Vereen to exploit this matchup in the passing game. Moreover, the Dolphins like to use their linebackers in ways that can make it very difficult for them to keep tabs on a receiver out of the backfield. Either Wheeler and Ellerbe must rise to the task or Miami must find other ways to provide help, or Vereen could have a very big day.

With a win, Tom Brady would move into a tie with Dolphins legend Dan Marino for 4th most wins by a quarterback in NFL history. If accomplished, Brady would have done it in 51 fewer games than Marino. The Patriots have won seven straight in the series, outscoring the Dolphins by a margin of 222-102, or 31.7 points per game to 14.5, in that span. Miami still leads the all-time series, 50-46.

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