MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The Miami Dolphins are the only thing in the Patriots' way of clinching the AFC East for the fifth straight year.
But the Dolphins are no lapdog opponent. Winners of four of their last six games, and coming off an exceptional 34-28 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the snow, there is plenty to worry about. Considering the Patriots' last outing against Miami, a 27-17 victory that was at the height of the team's offensive struggles, there's incentive to show strength at the top of the division.
Of course, there are injuries to consider. But there are also some good matchups that the Patriots need to be prepared for. Here's what we'll be watching.
1. Without Gronk, who will the Patriots turn to? -- By sheer numbers, and considering the games each player has been available, the Patriots have been fairly balanced distributing the football to their playmakers. That may shift even more with tight end Rob Gronkowski out for good after suffering a torn ACL and damaged MCL. Gronkowski had39 receptions in only seven games – 5.6 catches a game. He's the fourth-leading receiver on the team, behind only Julian Edelman (76 receptions), Danny Amendola (41 receptions), and Shane Vereen (40 receptions). Edelman has played in all 13 games, which averages out to 5.8 catches per game. Vereen, despite missing Weeks 2 through 10, is averaging 7.6 catches per game. You can guess for yourself who is going to get the bulk of the targets with Gronk out. As far as tight ends, Michael Hoomanawanui (10 receptions) leads all other eligible receivers for the Patriots with James Develin (4 catches) and Matthew Mulligan (2 catches) trailing.
2. An improved Tom Brady -- In the Patriots' first meeting with the Dolphins this season, Tom Brady had one of the worst games of his career, throwing for 116 yards on 13 of 22 passing, including a touchdown and an interception. At the time, there was great concern over Brady's right hand, which appeared to be swollen when shown on television (after the game, he not-so-slyly kept it out of view during his press conference). Now, we know there's nothing wrong with Brady's hand after a couple of top-notch performances against the Cleveland Browns (418 yards, 2 touchdowns), Houston Texans (371 yards, 70.7 completion rate), and Denver Broncos (344 yards, 3 touchdowns). His performance has been emblematic of what we know of Brady from the last dozen years. We expect to see more of the good Tom Brady on Sunday.
3. Josh Boyce's opportunities -- Both wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) and Aaron Dobson (foot) are injured for the Patriots, giving fellow rookie Josh Boyce increased opportunities. He played an integral role in last week's win over the Cleveland Browns, catching three passes for 49 yards, and showed he has the ability to make plays after the catch. He's going to continue to get these opportunities with only five wide receivers available on the roster – Edelman, Amendola, Austin Collie, and Matthew Slater are the others. It would be nice to see the speedster get more catch-and-run opportunities. Maybe the Patriots agree.
4. Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon vs. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder -- Vernon has seven sacks in his last four games and 11.5 this season. That's tied for the most sacks over the last four games in the NFL. The second-year pro has gotten better as the season has progressed, making it harder and harder for teams to pick which side to provide help on when Cameron Wake (50.5 career sacks) is lurking around the other corner. Solder has had a good season, despite allowing 10 sacks. In his last matchup with Vernon, he didn't allow a sack or hit on the quarterback and only one hurry. But Vernon did have three tackles for losses. And after Solder missed some practice time this week for a concussion, we will assume this matchup is going to be tough for Solder, facing one of the hottest defensive ends in the game.
5. Dealing with the running game -- The Patriots have dipped to 31st overall against the run, allowing 135.8 yards per game. Dolphins running backs Lamar Miller (567 yards) and Daniel Thomas (384) may play a big part of Sunday's game because teams are starting to zero in on this deficiency. Even the Browns, a putrid rushing team (84.3 yards per game), tried to ram it down the Patriots' throat with an abnormally high 25 carries for 108 yards. The Dolphins are only marginally better (95.8 yards per game) than the Browns, but the threat remains the same. Can the Patriots stop the run? That is their problem.