Welcome to Season 6, Episode 13, of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.
The downside to a generally savvy idea to pack divisional games into the later weeks of the season is that sometimes a rival becomes just a little too familiar. The Patriots meet the Dolphins this week, just two weeks after their first meeting, a 35-17 win for the home team at Gillette Stadium.
They played the Bills last week. They meet them again on Christmas Eve. Maybe familiarity (and short memories) will lead to even greater contempt, but right now it’s a stretch to eagerly anticipate anything about playing the Dolphins again, other than the high possibility of picking up an 11th win.
Miami is 5-7 after defeating the quarterback-less, checked-out Broncos Sunday, 35-9. Jay Cutler, who missed the previous meeting while in concussion protocol, will start at quarterback Sunday, but he’s playing like a guy who came out of the broadcast booth for one last fat payday from a desperate team … which is exactly who he is and what happened.
The Patriots will be without the suspended Rob Gronkowski, who is serving his one-game ban for a cheap shot on Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White last Sunday. Gronkowski had five catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns in the teams’ last meeting.
But Chris Hogan will return from shoulder injury, and Tom Brady, who missed a couple of days of practice this week for “a little extra treatment,’’ still has plenty of offensive weaponry at his disposal. If the recently inconsistent offensive line can prevent him from requiring more extra treatment next week, the Patriots should complete the season sweep of the Dolphins.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this one started …
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Dwayne Allen: When the Patriots acquired the established 27-year-old tight end from the Colts in March to replace free agent Martellus Bennett, few would have figured that he’d have fewer receptions for the Patriots this season than … Martellus Bennett. Bennett, who returned to the Patriots in early November after a curious departure from the Packers, had six catches in two games before going on injured reserve on Nov. 27. Allen has five catches all season, all coming in the last four weeks. (That’s two more than rookie tight end Jacob Hollister, if you were wondering.)
As you may have heard, the Patriots will be without Gronkowski, who had more catches against the Bills (9, for 147 yards) than Allen and Hollister have all season. But in his absence, there could be opportunity. Allen, who has been a dependable blocker, might just seize it. It’s not out of the question that he doubles his season receptions total Monday.
Stephon Gilmore: I’m not sure he’s in the vicinity of fan-favorite status just yet, but say this for the well-compensated Patriots cornerback: He’s been in the vicinity of pretty much every receiver to run a pass pattern against him in recent weeks. He was especially sharp Sunday against his former team, the Bills. With nothing else to play for late in the Patriots’ 23-3 victory, the Bills decided to aim for some sort of moral victory or something and targeted Gilmore late in the game with the hope of scoring a touchdown against the teammate who left them. No luck. Gilmore was up for the challenge, probably because the Bills are yet to identify more than a player or two on their roster who can throw a spiral consistently.
What’s more interesting – and relevant this week – is his performance against the Dolphins two weeks ago. Gilmore limited Dolphins receiver Devante Parker to one reception for 5 yards while intercepting a pass aimed his way. Gilmore revealed afterward that he knew where Parker was going on every route. If that’s the case again, we’ll know for sure Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen isn’t qualified to bus tables at Shula Burger, let alone mastermind an NFL offense.
Rex Burkhead: Dion Lewis did most of the damage (15 carries, 112 yards) when the Patriots ripped through the Dolphins defense for 196 rushing yards in Week 12. But Burkhead also did his part, picking up 50 yards on 13 carries against Miami and then 78 on 12 carries against the Bills last week. He has four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) over the past two games. Don’t you get the sense he’s going to play a huge role in winning a playoff game sometime along the way this postseason?
Grievance of the week
It was tempting to use this space to gripe about the sanctimony regarding Gronkowski’s dirty play, which left White with a concussion. It was a stupid and shameful thing to do, even in the heat of the moment. But the punishment was in line with league-mandated penances on other dirty plays through the years, including Danny Travathan’s attempt to turn Packers receiver Davante Adams into a human bobblehead earlier this season.
It seemed to me any suggestion Gronkowski should have been banned longer was packaged with a barely-hidden agenda.
But that’s not my grievance. This pair of paragraphs from an ESPN story published Tuesday? This is my grievance:
Roger Goodell has signed a five-year contract extension to remain the commissioner of the NFL, according to a letter obtained by ESPN.
A source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the new contract would be worth $200 million over the life of the contract – about $40 million annually – if owners approve all the bonuses and all the incentives are met. The new deal runs through the 2023 season.
Two hundred million. For that vacant suit. Good heavens, imagine what a man of competence like Pete Rozelle would make nowadays.
Prediction, or do you think Dan Marino still gives Isotoners as Christmas gifts?
I suppose this could be a trap game. I suppose. The Patriots did lose at Miami to end the 2015 season, which ended up being a relevant defeat. The 20-10 loss cost the Patriots home field and their season eventually ended in the high altitudes of Denver. And Brady is just 8-9 at Miami in his career.
But I really don’t think this is a trap game. I can’t see Jay Cutler beating Brady and Belichick in December, with the Patriots defense playing so well. I say it goes more like last year’s road meeting, a 35-14 Patriots win in which Brady completed 25 of 33 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns. This will be a nice tropical breeze of a win, the Patriots’ 15th straight on the road.
Patriots 35, Dolphins 14.