Pats Preview: Pats @ Dolphins
As the New England Patriots prepare for their regular season finale in Miami, against the Dolphins, here are some pregame story lines to keep in mind.
1 Vs. 2- The game will pit the top two teams in the AFC East, with the Pats coming in as the division champs for the 8th straight season and the Dolphins snagging the final playoff spot in the conference. Looking ahead to this game at the start of the season, many expected the Pats to be in the familiar position that they find themselves in, though Miami has surprised many by posting a 10-5 record through their first 15 games. There is a chance the two teams could meet in the postseason as well, though that game would be played in New England.
On The Line- There is plenty on the line for New England in this game, even though both teams have already made the post season. Though the Pats have already clinched a first round bye and a home game in the divisional round, they could take another huge step in making their path to the Super Bowl even easier if they win Sunday. A win would cap the Pats' regular season record at 14-2 and solidify them as the AFC's top team, which would secure them home-field advantage throughout the postseason. New England is currently one game better than the Oakland Raiders, who enter Week 17 at 12-3. If the Pats drop their game and Oakland wins it's game, however, the Raiders would get the top spot in the conference and home-field advantage due to a tiebreaker. So, heading into the final game of the regular season, the Pats must not look ahead to the postseason and need to lock up that top spot.
No Rest- Due to the stakes riding on the outcome of this game, which were outlined above, expect the Pats to play all of their healthy weapons to start the game. No on knows better than New England just how important home-field advantage is, especially after how things ended last season, and there is no chance the Pats fall into the same trap that they did last season. Unless the game is well in hand late in the action or injuries occur, don't expect to see any back ups playing a big role for the Pats Sunday.
Perfect On The Road- A win Sunday would cap the Pats' road record this season at a perfect 8-0. That would mean that for only the seventh time in league history a team would finish the regular season undefeated away from home. It would also be the second time the Pats would amass such a feat, as they completed the task in 2007.
Always A Tough Test- Playing in Miami always seems to be a tough test for the Pats, as they enter the match up with a 15-36 road record against the Dolphins throughout their history. Even in their wins, New England has found it tough to dominate out in Miami. The weather, of course, sometimes play a factor, though at this point in the season the team is probably happy to get to a warmer climate and finish up the season in the sun.
No Mitchell?- In a surprising twist, it appears that the Pats will most likely be without rookie wide out Malcolm Mitchell, Sunday. Mitchell, who has come on strong in the second half of the season and become a consistent target for quarterback Tom Brady, hasn't practiced at all this week because of a knee injury. After starting the season off slowly and not making much of an impact through the team's first nine games, Mitchell has dazzled as of late, catching 25 passes for 306 yards and four scores in the team's last six games. With Mitchell listed as doubtful and likely out for Sunday, New England's already thin receiving corps will take another hit.
A Increased Role- With Mitchell expected to be unavailable Sunday, it looks like recently signed receiver Michael Floyd is likely in store for a boost in playing time. After being signed two weeks ago, the veteran wide out sat out of the team's Week 15 win over Denver, but did play a limited role in the team's Week 16 victory over the Jets. Floyd caught both balls thrown his way last Sunday, although he was only credited with one reception as he came down out of bounds on his first target. With a third week in the system and another full week of practice under his belt, the Notre Dame product should be able to step in and play a bit of a larger role to add depth at a thin position.
The Triple 20 Club- Pats quarterback Tom Brady has already eclipsed the 20 win mark against AFC East opponents the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets. With a win on Sunday, Brady will secure his 20th career victory over Miami pulling the ultimate triple play over his division foes.
Attack, Attack, Attack- With the Dolphins coming into the game as the league's 30th ranked defense, expect the Patriot offense to come out and attack Miami. In the first meeting between these two teams, New England's offense was dynamic with Jimmy Garoppolo under center through the first quarter plus. Though they were slowed a bit after Garoppolo's injury, with Brady back at quarterback for this go-around there is no reason to believe that the same offensive output put together early in the Week 3 mach up can't be at least equaled in the regular season finale. New England's offense enters the game averaging just over 385 yards per game, while the Dolphin defense allows an average of 381.7 yards per game itself. With those stats in mind, the Pats should be able to do what they are accustomed to doing and should be able to get the ball down the field.
Run Right Through Them- With the Pats coming in with the eighth best running game in the league and the Dolphins coming in as the league's 30th ranked run defense, expect the Pats to try and run right through Miami. With the combination of power back LeGarrette Blount and shifty dual threat back Dion Lewis in the backfield, New England has two different types of backs that they can throw at the struggling Miami defense. Over the past couple of weeks, Lewis has actually carried the ball with the most effectiveness, while Blount has continued his success in getting the ball into the end zone. Regardless of who is carrying the ball for the Pats Sunday, look for the running attack to have its way all day long.
Neutralizing Ajayi- While the Patriot offense will be looking to run through the weak Dolphin rush defense, the New England defensive front will be tasked with neutralizing Miami's explosive running back Jay Ajayi. On the season, Ajayi has become a surprise star, carrying the ball 244 times for 1,213 yards and eight scores. In the first meeting, however, Ajayi managed to gain just 14 yards on five carries largely due to the fact that the Dolphins didn't challenge the Pats run defense, which ranks third in the league. A key factor in the game could be whether or not the Pats can stop the run as successfully as they did in the first meeting or if Ajayi can be the back he has been through much of the season.
Not The Same Threat- In the first meeting between these two teams, the Dolphins battled back from a 24-0, first half deficit to make the game a 7-point contest in the end. Of course, that comeback was led by starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who will not be on the field Sunday following a knee injury he suffered a few weeks back. Now, if the Dolphins fall behind, they'll have to rely upon veteran backup Matt Moore, who is a journeyman backup for a reason. No matter how you slice or dice it or what weapons you put around him, Moore is just not the same threat that Tannehill is. Also, keep in mind that Jimmy Garoppolo left that game in the second quarter due to a shoulder injury. This go-around Brady will be on the field, so the Pats offense will probably have no issues keeping up the scoring.
Prediction- After squandering a golden opportunity last year and suffering the consequences in the postseason, the Pats should be more hungry than ever to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. With their offense clicking on multiple levels and the Dolphins defense inconsistent, New England looks poised to do just that. While Miami has some weapons that could present a threat to the New England defense, including the likes of Ajayi and Jarvis Landry, the Pats are playing well enough defensively to dismantle a team rolling with its backup quarterback and nothing really significant to play for as their postseason ticket is already punched. With all things considered, New England should separate themselves enough to get the backups in late and clinch home field.
Pats 37, Dolphins 14