No miracles in Miami
Sinking Fish haven't put up much of a fight this season
New England Patriots (12-1) at Miami Dolphins (2-11)
9 p.m., Channel 5, (Patriots by 9)
When the Dolphins run
Dolphins' rushing offense: 82.6 yards per game, 31st in the NFL
Patriots' rushing defense: 103 yards per game, ninth in the NFL
The weekly auditions for a starting running back continue tonight in Miami. Last season, Ricky Williams rushed for 1,372 yards. So far this year, 12 Dolphins have rushed for a combined 1,074 yards led by Sammy Morris, who has 338 yards, and Travis Minor, who is right on his heels with 323. The 5-foot-10-inch, 205-pound Minor, who has battled ankle woes this year, will get the start at tailback. Minor has good speed and good moves. He's at his best when he can turn the corner and get into the open field. He's adept at cutting back, shifting speeds, and making defenders miss. He'll never be a guy that can consistently pound between the tackles (a la Mr. Williams) because of his lack of size and durability. Morris is a tweener. At 6 feet, 220 pounds, he doesn't have classic fullback size and he doesn't possess tailback speed. Morris, who is a decent receiver, may see more fullback duty now that Rob Konrad, one of the NFL's best blockers, has been placed on injured reserve with a back injury. The left side of the line is the Dolphins' dominant side. Guard Jeno James helped anchor the Panthers' superior ground game last year and has been solid this season. Damion McIntosh rarely loses a one-on-one battle, but can get confused by stunting linemen. Third-year center Seth McKinney can be downright nasty and has the strength to overwhelm defenders. On the right side, rookie Rex Hadnot has recently been installed as the starter and John St. Clair is better suited for pass protection. The Patriots' front seven should win the majority of the battles in the trenches.
When the Dolphins pass
Dolphins' passing offense: 190.3 yards per game, 21st in the NFL
Patriots' passing defense: 215.8 yards per game, 17th in the NFL
A.J. Feeley was handed the starting quarterback job twice this season. Once by Dave Wannstedt and again by Wannstedt's successor, Jim Bates. He lost the job once to veteran Jay Fiedler (who has since been placed on IR with a back injury) and another poor performance could have fans in South Florida clamoring for Sage Rosenfels. Feeley is still finding opponents (15 interceptions) with more regularity than the end zone (nine touchdowns), but he has shown signs of becoming the leader the Dolphins had hoped for when they acquired him from the Eagles for a second-round pick. In his last two starts (both losses) he threw for more than 300 yards against a tough Buffalo defense and for 170 more in a 20-17 setback at Denver. He has a pair of quality receivers in Chris Chambers and Marty Booker. The 5-11, 210-pound Chambers has game-breaking speed and deceptive strength -- he rarely gets outmuscled. He leads the Fish with 59 catches, 703 yards, and 6 TDs. Booker, who arrived this summer from Chicago, also has good speed and power. He can be infuriating for coaches and fans because of his inconsistency. He can make highlight-worthy plays and drop catchable balls on the same drive. Tight end Randy McMichael (58 receptions, 698 yards) is among the game's elite receiving tight ends. When he stays focused -- he's the Dolphin most likely to pop off when things don't go his way -- he can simply take over games. Carson Palmer was the first QB to really expose the weaknesses in New England's depleted secondary. It's unlikely Feeley will do the same.
When the Patriots run
Patriots' rushing offense: 129.2 yards per game, eighth in the NFL
Dolphins' rushing defense: 138.8 yards per game, 29th in the NFL
The good news for the Dolphins is Santa Claus is coming to town. The bad news is Corey Dillon's coming, too. Miami, which has boasted one of the best defenses in the league the past few seasons, is having trouble stopping the run. It's been especially tough lately because the main man in the middle, linebacker Zach Thomas, has missed two straight games with a hamstring injury. Thomas, who is doubtful for tonight, still leads the Dolphins with 132 tackles. Thomas's running mate, Junior Seau, is on IR after tearing a pectoral muscle. Eddie Moore (knee) is also doubtful. Now the linebacking crew of Morlon Greenwood (a relentless pursuer), Brendan Ayanbadejo (think Larry Izzo), and rookie Derrick Pope (Thomas's replacement) will have to step and stop the bruising Dillon. Pope, who has above-average speed, rarely misses an assignment -- or a tackle. Tackles Bryan Robinson (6-4, 305 pounds) and Jeff Zgonina (6-2, 285 pounds) are effective at locking down their blockers and freeing up space for the linebackers to roam. If Robinson gets his mitts on you, he's not letting go. Zgonina is a nasty 12-year veteran who knows all the tricks. Tom Brady needs to change up his cadence to keep the wily Zgonina honest. The Patriots' offensive line has quietly impressed as Dillon continues his assault on the franchise's rushing records. Expect Dillon, who has 1,309 yards, to get some relief from change-of-pace back Kevin Faulk and rookie Cedric Cobbs to stay fresh in the Florida heat.
When the Patriots pass
Patriots' passing offense: 226.4 yards per game, 11th in the NFL
Dolphins' passing defense: 165.5 yards per game, second in the NFL
Shutdown corners are a dying breed, especially in this era of protecting receivers as if they're made of glass. The Dolphins, however, have two shutdown corners in Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. Madison, who was taken one pick after Corey Dillon in the second round of the 1997 draft (New England's top pick was Chris Canty), no longer has elite speed but still is able to keep receivers in front of him. He has great instincts and seemingly knows what route his opponent is going to run on every play. Surtain has great wheels and body control. He rarely gets burned by double moves because he's athletic enough to adjust on the fly. Both are 5-11 and possess great leaping ability. The best way to neutralize this duo is to keep feeding the ball to Dillon. That said, Tom Brady isn't intimidated by much, so New England may choose to go on the offensive and keep running Deion Branch and David Patten on fly patterns. This will open up the short game for Troy Brown and the tight ends -- starter Daniel Graham is questionable with a rib injury. Brady won't have a lot of time in the pocket tonight. Defensive end Jason Taylor will come calling with regularity. Matt Light will need to be at his best to contain Taylor. The 6-6, 255-pounder is lightning quick off the snap (you'll swear he's offside on half the plays) and extremely powerful. He has ridiculous closing speed once he dusts his blocker.
Patriots' keys to victory
1. Miami pound machine: Feed Dillon the ball until Dolphins' M*A*S*H* unit defense proves it can stop him.
2. Touchy Feeley: Show A.J. how a Super Bowl defense treats QBs who are prone to mistakes.
3. Taylor-made blocking: Double, triple, or quadruple-team Jason to keep him off Brady's back.
Dolphins' keys to victory
1. Fishfinder: Feeley has to find a way to get the ball to McMichael and Chambers.
2. Minor adjustments: Team needs to find out if Minor can be a major factor for the future.
3. Double stuff: Commit to stopping Dillon and make Brady deal with Madison and Surtain.
Dolphins' key offensive player: Chris Chambers
Speedy receiver has quietly developed into a solid performer. If the Dolphins ever settle on a permanent QB, Chambers could reach elite status.
How he beats you:
With explosiveness. He starts off quick and just keeps getting quicker -- especially after the catch. Fearless going over the middle and is adept at staying inbounds.
How to shut him down:
By beating him down. He must be jammed at the line to disrupt rhythm and throw off his route running, which can be suspect at times.
Dolphins' key defensive player: Reggie Howard
If the Patriots choose to stay away from Surtain and Madison, this nickel back and former Panther -- he picked off a Tom Brady pass in the end zone in the Super Bowl -- is a likely target.
How he beats you:
With versatility. He's adept at blanketing receivers on short and medium routes and rarely makes mistakes. Doesn't gamble often, but when he does, it usually pays off.
How to shut him down:
With matchups. Surtain has been covering slot receivers, leaving Howard on the outside where he is susceptible to getting burned by speedy receivers on long balls.
Patriots 34, Dolphins 12