Yeah, you know how this usually goes. The Patriots arrive for their annual visit to Miami with an outstanding record, a roster that is gelling for a playoff push, and a real shot at the Super Bowl.
The host Dolphins? Well, they occasionally have something at stake – this season, it’s a fringy shot at a wild card – but more often than not in recent years the highlight of the franchise’s season is when the perfect ’72 Dolphins celebrate the first loss of the last unbeaten team.
And yet the Dolphins almost always give the Patriots a hard fight in Miami.
More often than not, they win that fight.
You’ve probably been a witness to the weirdness. You know that Tom Brady is 7-9 against the Dolphins on their own turf in his career. You also know that the Dolphins have won four of the last five matchups there, including a 27-20 win last December when the Patriots entered at 10-2, the Dolphins were 6-6 (just like now), and yet Miami, led by Jay Cutler, jumped to a 27-10 lead after three quarters before hanging on.
Heck, in the last two seasons in which the Patriots won the Super Bowl (2014, 2016), they lost during the regular season in Miami.
I’m not sure what any of this means – the Patriots insist it is not the heat that gets to them, as if December even in Florida is scorching. But I do know this: Patriots victories on the road against the Dolphins should not be counted before they are hatched.
With a win, the Patriots will clinch the AFC East for the 10th straight year. They’re going to have to earn their hat and t-shirt Sunday.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Danny Amendola: The popular former Patriot is listed as questionable for Sunday with a knee injury that kept him out of Sunday’s win over the Bills. But let’s talk about him anyway since in a sense he is still somewhat relevant to the Patriots. Looking at his numbers, I’d say he’s been about what the Dolphins expected to get this year when they signed him to a two-year, $12 million deal in March. He’s missed just one game, and has contributed a team-high 48 catches (on 62 targets) for 469 yards and a touchdown. He’s on pace to come very close to his 61-659-1 line with the Patriots last year. But here’s my question: Do you think the Patriots have missed him? I’d say no in general, though certainly so on a sporadic third and 4 here and there. But the true answer to that cannot come until after the playoffs, since that is when Amendola was as reliable and clutch as any receiver at Brady’s disposal.
Kyle Van Noy: Van Noy, the Patriots leading tackler, got a lot of praise this week on the various coaches’ conference calls, with Dolphins coach Adam Gase saying he’s a “nightmare’’ to play against because of his versatility and ability to set the edge against the run. Not bad for a player the Lions basically gave to the Patriots in October 2016, sending the former second-round pick to New England along with a seventh-round pick for a sixth-rounder. It’s nice to see the unheralded Van Noy get a little heralding. It’s actually been a good stretch overall lately for the Patriots linebackers as a group. Notably, Dont’a Hightower looks quicker now than he did to start the season, and Elandon Roberts has been making some Bryan Cox/Ted Johnson type of hits against the running game. Maybe they’re not a weakness after all.
Frank Gore: The 35-year-old running back is the Dolphins’ leading rusher with 616 yards through a dozen games, though oddly he does not have a rushing touchdown. Though he just has two games of more than 67 rushing yards, he has an outside shot at a 1,000-yard season. If somehow he gets there, it would be the 10th 1,000-yard season of his career, and he’s also had two seasons in which he finished within 39 yards of 1,000. We all know Gore had been a good-to-excellent back for a long time, a remarkable achievement in itself given that he had bad knees coming out of the University of Miami in the 2005 draft and fell to the third round. (The Niners got Alex Smith and Gore that year. Not bad.) But awareness of his longevity and success does not help me wrap my head around the fact that he is currently FOURTH all-time in rushing (14,642), trailing only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders while having moved past Curtis Martin this year. I don’t know if anyone has ever thought of Gore as a Hall of Famer, but he kind of has to be, doesn’t he?
Grievance of the week
Hey, look: An apology from Roger Goodell to league owners regarding how he has handled domestic violence cases:
“At times … and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals. We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place. My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.
And we will, he said. And we will. Powerful stuff.
Of course, he said this not recently, but in a letter to owners in 2014 after he was caught doing his see-no-evil routine in the infamous incident in which Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on videotape punching out his then-fiancee in a casino elevator in 2014.
We figured his words were empty then, because his words are usually emptier than his fancy suit. But the latest confirmation came last week when TMZ released a tape of Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in February. Goodell and the league knew about the incident immediately. It took nine months – and another videotape – to do anything about it.
We know Goodell is a soulless commissioner whose priority is the league’s coffers. It’s just amazing how often he proves it when he’s trying to hide it.
Prediction, or can you imagine the numbers Dan Marino would put up today?
You’d think I’d learn. Every year I expect the Patriots to go to Miami and win with relative ease, the logic being obvious: They’re the superior team. And every year, or just about every year anyway, the Patriots go to Miami, take time to find their bearings on offense, and struggle on defense against Miami’s mediocre or worse quarterback. (I still can’t believe they’ve lost to A.J. Feeley and Joey Harrington through the years). So I’ll budge a little here and acknowledge that this is going to be a tough one, a frustrating grind in which the Patriots don’t play as well as they should and the Dolphins look like a playoff team. That’s just how it goes there. I am not, however, predicting that the Patriots will lose. As possible as it might be, that’s still just a step too far. Patriots 31, Miami 24.