FORT LAUDERDALE - The Patriots travel South to take on the Dolphins for the first time this season. A victory would deliver their 10th division title since 2001, and 12th-straight winning season. They'll accomplish both if they execute these five keys Sunday against Miami:
- Stop the run: The Dolphins would like nothing better than to be a balanced offense against the Patriots, if not tilted toward the run, with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill taking on Bill Belichick and an opportunistic Patriots defense. The Dolphins know that if this turns into a shootout between Tannehill and Tom Brady, they'll lose, and they'll probably lose huge. The Dolphins will use both Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas to run the ball against a Patriots' run defense that has had its share of lapses the past few weeks with gap and edge control. With both Chandler Jones (ankle) and Jermaine Cunningham (suspension) out, don't be surprised if the Patriots play a lot of their 3-4 scheme, which is their best run defense. The line would be Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Brandon Deaderick/Ron Brace. The linebackers would be Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower. Ninkovich and Hightower will need to set a strong edge. The linemen will two-gap and allow Mayo and Spikes to wall up against the run. Love and Deaderick have struggled in recent weeks with gap control.
- Spread to run: The Dolphins have played toe to toe with teams, like Seattle last week, that want to stick with the run. The Dolphins have problems against teams that spread them out because their team speed is lacking up front, and outside of cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reshad Jones, the secondary has had its share of struggles. The Patriots shouldn't have much trouble throwing early against the Dolphins, and then they can come back to the run when the Dolphins are on their heels.
- Quick Brady: Sure, Cameron Wake is a very good pass rusher, but with how fast Tom Brady gets rid of the ball, he really shouldn't be a problem. As long as the Dolphins don't play a lot of press man, Brady should be able to go with his normal rhythm, which is about 2 to 2.75 seconds to get rid of the ball. That's not enough time for the defense to get pressure. Using the no huddle will also keep the pace up, but with the warm weather, the Patriots might want to pick their spots with that.
- Have a plan for Clay: The Patriots will likely try to take receiver Brian Hartline away with Aqib Talib in passing situations -- Alfonso Dennard would have a big height disadvantage -- and they'll have a plan for Davone Bess that will include being physical with him along with some bracket coverage. Tight end Anthony Fasano is a solid player but not a dynamic athlete, so the Patriots' linebackers, who are limited in coverage, won't be exploited. They will need safety help with him in the red zone, however. The one Dolphins player who could be a problem is H-back Charles Clay. He's increasingly becoming more a part of the offense, and Tannehill's confidence in him has grown. Clay's a very good athlete and his ability to lineup anywhere makes him a matchup problem. The Dolphins will likely try to scheme Clay to end up with a linebacker in coverage, and that could be trouble. They'll need some help.
- Make Tannehill move: As the season has gone along, Tannehill has increasingly become more careless with the ball. He's fine in the pocket, but once he starts to move in the pocket, he really has trouble getting his footwork right and not floating the ball, if not throwing into a bad situation. The problem is Tannehill's such a good athlete that you don't want him to escape the pocket (though he's been reluctant to leave when pressured). So the Patriots will want to bring pressure in his face to get Tannehill to backpedal off his spot, and keep contain on the edges, especially to his right. It will be important for the Patriots' linemen to push the pocket from the inside, and expect the Patriots to augment that with a fair share of inside blitzes from Spikes and Mayo.
If the Dolphins take care of the ball, they can make this a fourth-quarter game and then anything can happen. But we don't see that happening. The Patriots are causing too many turnovers, and the Dolphins have eight in their past three games. If the Dolphins really want to force the issue, they'll mix press man and various pre- and post-snap reads to make Brady hold onto the ball for the extra send the Dolphins will need for Cameron Wake and situational rusher Olivier Vernon to generate a rush. Outside of that, and provided the Patriots don't start turning the ball over, the Patriots will go on a run at some point that will break the Dolphins.
Patriots 34, Dolphins 17