FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The season may not have gone exactly as the Miami Dolphins or the New England Patriots thought it would so far, but their Week 8 matchup is just as big as it looked this offseason.
First place in the AFC East isn't on the line, but the Dolphins could draw within one game of the Patriots for the division lead. Both teams lost in Week 7, and the sense of urgency is beginning to build as we hit the midway mark of the season.
Here's a look at the Dolphins in advance of the big division showdown.
How they got here: With a 3-0 start, the Dolphins looked ready to threaten the Patriots in the AFC East. Three weeks and three losses later, they've slipped to .500 and the contenders-or-pretenders debate has begun. The Dolphins lost to the Bills this past week despite playing at home, coming off a bye and facing the Bills' third-string quarterback Thad Lewis.
The Dolphins' two biggest issues have been protecting the quarterback (26 sacks is the most in the NFL) and running the football (78 rushing yards per game is the eighth-lowest average). On Monday, the Dolphins made a move to sure up the offensive line by trading a conditional late-round pick for Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who was benched a few weeks ago after the Ravens traded for Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe.
Key cog, offense -- Brian Hartline, WR: Mike Wallace got the big contract, but Brian Hartline remains quarterback Ryan Tannehill's most trusted target. He has helped the Dolphins keep the chains moving, and he leads the team with 20 of his 31 receptions picking up a first down this season. Hartline is 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, giving him enough size to win matchups on the outside, but it's his ability to create separation that has earned him the trust of his quarterback. He has sneaky speed, and ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the 2009 scouting combine. Bill Belichick would be a big fan of Hartline's three-cone drill, a blazing time of 6.65 seconds. Mostly, he is at his best working underneath routes -- slants, digs and drags -- but he is good running a comeback route or an out route.
Key cog, defense -- Cameron Wake, DE: Just like with the Jets, you could put the Dolphins defensive linemen in a hat and pick any one as your key cog on defense. Wake's explosion off the line is rare, and he's known to beat offensive tackles consistently on burst alone. The Patriots are plenty familiar with how much of an impact Wake can make in the pass-rush; he has logged at least one sack in five of his eight career games against the Patriots. Wake has been asked to rush the passer from several different spots in his career, lining up as a 3-4 outside linebacker from 2009-2011 and a 4-3 defensive end from 2012-2013. He is battling back from a mild MCL sprain, and played just 32.4 percent of the snaps against the Bills.
X-factor -- Reshad Jones, S: Right now, Jones is the true definition of an x-factor. We're really not sure what we'll get from him. He has been victimized by the Saints and Ravens in coverage, but he proved there's still some playmaker left in there with a pick-six off Joe Flacco. He looked primed to emerge as one of the NFL's top young safeties, but after receiving a four-year, $29.36 million contract this offseason, he has had a rough ride in 2013 so far. Jones made several big plays in the first meeting with the Patriots last year, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble. He was a maven in coverage for the Dolphins in 2012, and he allowed more than one completion into his coverage in just five games last year. He's already matched that number through six games, allowing 21 receptions on the year.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe injured his shoulder against the Ravens and was inactive against the Bills. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson has been nursing a groin injury for over a month, and was a game-time decision against the Bills, but was ultimately active.
- The Dolphins put the emphasis on forcing turnovers on defense and not allowing big plays in the passing game this offseason. They currently have 10 turnovers, just six shy of their total output last season. The 23 pass plays of 20 yards or more against them is almost right on pace for their total of last season (60).
- Turnovers on offense seem to be a bigger problem, though -- namely from Tannehill. When he stays turnover-free, the Dolphins are 7-4; when he turns it over at least once, they are 3-8.
- The last time these two teams met, Tannehill was sacked seven times. That kick-started the Dolphins on their way to allowing a league-leading 26 sacks through the first six games of the season.
- The Jets just ran the ball 52 times against the Patriots; The Dolphins have run the ball 55 times in the past three games. Look for an increased focus on the running game against a Patriots defense that currently ranks 31st against the run.
- There's a battle of strength vs. strength brewing in the red zone. The Dolphins offense converts 72.22 percent of their red zone possessions into touchdowns, the second-highest average in the league; in allowing conversions on 42.86 percent of opponent's possessions inside the 20, the Patriots red zone defense is the sixth-best in the NFL. The winner in this area could determine the winner of the game.
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