Sunday's division match between the Patriots and Dolphins has taken on adden significance this week after the top-seeded Broncos fell to San Diego on Thursday Night Football. The 10-3 Patriots find themselves in control of their own destiny as they close in on the playoffs. If the season ended today, New England would be the #1 overall seed, with homefield advantage throughout.
Unfortunately, the season does not begin today. In fact, the Patriots have to win three tough games between now and playoff time. The next two games (at Miami/at Baltimore) are especially challenging for a New England team that is 3-3 on the road this year.
The Dolphins nearly saw their season derailed by major-midseason scandal. They have recovered impressively, and now find themselves at 7-6 and in contention for an AFC wildcard spot. Tomorrow would surely be the win of the season for the Dolphins if they can pull it off.
Here are three big things to watch for at SunLife stadium tomorrow:
1) Avoiding the slow start- In the second half of the year the Patriots have formed a maddening habit of coming out of the gates painfully flat. The past two weeks against Houston and Cleveland, the team has looked completely and utterly overmatched by clearly inferior competition. Yet, they have been able to flip some sort of switch at halftime, and play stellar football down the stretch. They have all year. Their first game vs. Miami this year followed this same script. New England fought back from an early deficit to defeat the Fins 27-20.
Tomorrow it will be imperative that the Patriots avoid this recurring theme. There is no doubt the Dolphins are going to come out flying tomorrow, playing with an intensity that is going to be difficult to match. Tomorrow's game has the opportunity to be the definition of a "statement game" for Miami, as they could bring themselves closer to a playoff berth while simultaneously knocking off their division rival, who also happens to be the #1 seed in the conference. If the Patriots show signs of weakness early the Dolphins are going to smell blood in the water, and in a hostile road environment it would be a much more difficult task for the Pats to climb out of an early hole. If New England is going to win tomorrow, they need to play 60 complete minutes of solid football, not just 30, or in last week's case, 2.
2) Battle of the lines- Tomorrow's game will likely be won in the trenches. Miami has a dynamic, talented, and young defensive line that is going to give the Pats O-Line everything they can handle and more. The Dolphins sacked Tom Brady three times in Foxborough earlier this year. This was the same game that the Patriots lost starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to a broken leg.
Jim Mahoney/AP Photo/ESPN.com
The protection for Tom Brady this season has been questionable at best. He has already been sacked more times this year (36), than he has in any complete season since 2001 (41). Unfortunately, he will surely surpass this total by year's end. I'm sure going into the season that wasn't one of the stats Brady was looking to set a new career high in.
Cameron Wake, star defensive end for Miami, stated earlier this week that the primary objective Sunday will be to make Tom Brady uncomfortable in the pocket. Wake, who has 7.5 sacks on the year, is surrounded with other talented lineman in Oilver Vernon, Jared Odrick, Dion Jordan, Koa Misi, and Paul Soliai. The group has combined for 13 sacks in the past four games (from ESPN.com). The line is paired with a talented Miami secondary led by star corner Brent Grimes.
Having lost his favorite target to a season-ending knee injury last week, things are going to be hard enough for Brady as is on Sunday. If the line in front of him is unable to keep constant pressure off of him, it is going to be a long, long day for New England.
3) New go-to guy on offense- There is no doubt Rob Gronkowski was Brady's favorite target on offense. But this team is used to not having him on the field, and have proven adept at finding other players to step up. The question now is, who will in be tomorrow: Will it be Julian "Minitron" Edelman, who has been one the Patriots 2013 MVP's? Will Danny Ameondola finally emerge as the player we all hoped he would be? Or will one of the rookie wideouts (both listed as questionable) step up? Perhaps tomorrow is the day talented but fumble-troubled back Stevan Ridley finally emerges from the dog house and makes a major impact.
All these players will likely play and have some sort of role tomorrow, but I think Brady has already found his new primary target in Shane Vereen. When healthy, Vereen is an unbelievably explosive player who is not only a dynamic running back, but one of the best in the league catching the ball out of the backfield. Last week in Cleveland, Vereen has 12 grabs for 152 yards, both franchise records for a running back.
Keep an eye out for these three things in tomorrows game, as they will likely combine to determine it's outcome. Another X factor will be the weather. Temperatures in Miami are expected to exceed 80 degrees, which will be a major adjustment for a team that thrives in the frigid temps of Foxborough. Hopefully, the climate will be more in favor of the Patriots should they make it to New York in February. A win tomorrow would be an important step in that direction.