Even the unpredictable won’t affect the outcome of Patriots-Dolphins

The Dolphins should be no obstacle to securing a first-round bye for the 10th straight season.

It’s student meets teacher when Brian Flores (left) returns to Gillette this weekend.
It’s student meets teacher when Brian Flores (left) returns to Gillette this weekend. –Mark Brown/Getty Images

Welcome to Season 8, Episode 16 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

The first time the Patriots faced the Dolphins this season, way back in Week 2, it was supposed to be easy, and man, was it. So much was so easy for the Patriots then, it seemed.

They thoroughly demolished the Dolphins that Sunday, 43-0, on Miami’s turf. How thorough was it? When the third quarter ended, the Dolphins were outgaining Patriots tight end Matt LaCosse, 38-33.

Stephon Gilmore and Jamie Collins returned interceptions for long touchdowns. Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in a viciously efficient performance. Sony Michel picked up 83 yards on the ground and scored the first touchdown.

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And, of course, that week doubled as the eventful, fleeting Antonio Brown era as a Patriot. He had four catches, including a touchdown. This, all of it, was going to work wonderfully for the defending Super Bowl champions.

It hasn’t quite been that easy. Brown’s Patriot debut was also his finale, his reprehensible behavior through the years catching up with him at his new NFL address. The Patriots did win their first eight games, but there’s no denying that turbulence has sometimes jarred them on this journey that ideally leads to a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance.

They lost three of five. Attrition affected the offense — notably injuries to James Develin and David Andrews — and Brady had alarming stretches where he actually played like a 42-year-old quarterback, and not like the age-defying wonder he has been for a half-dozen years now. The Baltimore Ravens emerged as the team to beat in the AFC.

The Patriots found themselves in this weird place. We knew they were good — their record confirmed it — but they were trending the wrong way at a point in the season in which they’ve usually affirmed their dominance and championship intentions.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how one game can alleviate so many concerns, at least for a week? The Patriots bounced back last week with their most impressive win in a long time against the best team they’ve played in a while, beating the stout Buffalo Bills, 24-17. Brady was as sharp as he has been since . . . well, perhaps that first Miami game. While the post-Rob Gronkowski degree of difficulty is higher this year, it’s starting to feel a little bit like last year, when the Patriots rode the running game and a fierce defense to a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

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The Dolphins should be no obstacle to securing a first-round bye for the 10th straight season. They’ve improved from that ugly beginning — the Patriots and Ravens outscored them, 102-10, in Weeks 1 and 2 — under coach Brian Flores. They’re now 4-11. But a win Sunday, as satisfying as it may be for the former Patriots assistant, is both improbable and impractical. This is a rebuilding team that needs the best draft position possible. They’re all about the future. The Patriots? They’re trying to make sure the present belongs to them, one more time.

Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started . . .

THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY

N’Keal Harry — The rookie first-round pick’s contributions the past two weeks have been modest but meaningful. In the wins over the Bengals and Bills, Harry made four catches on seven targets for 36 yards and a touchdown. He also carried the ball four times for 40 yards, including an 18-yarder against the Bills in which Brady channeled his inner Sam Gash as a blocker. Harry’s numbers aren’t spectacular, but if you’re a Patriots fan who waited, perhaps impatiently, for him to get healthy, get a chance to contribute, and then finally have an impact, you know what this has been: significant progress. Josh McDaniels has used Harry creatively the last two weeks, not unlike how the Patriots utilized Cordarrelle Patterson last year. But Harry comes with a higher ceiling; he’s much better at fighting for the ball as a receiver. Brady found nine receivers in the win over the Bills. Six players caught at least three passes. It’s the kind of diversity the Patriots’ offense needs, and that should continue Sunday against a Miami pass defense that ranks 28th in the league (265.4 yards per game) and has long since lost its best cornerback, Xavien Howard, for the season. I don’t know if Harry will have a big game. But he’s trending toward having one, and that’s the kind of progress Patriots fans were hoping for rather than actually seeing just a few weeks ago.

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Lawrence Guy — When the Patriots thumped the Dolphins in Week 2, they piled up seven sacks, and the defensive line got its share of shots in on Dolphins quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen. Adam Butler had a pair of sacks, while Danny Shelton and someone named Michael Bennett each had one. Guy didn’t have any, finishing with a relatively modest three tackles. But an argument can be made that he’s been the Patriots’ best defensive lineman among an unsung group that has done its collective job extremely well this year. He was a beast last Saturday against the Bills, finishing with six tackles, two quarterback hits, one sack, and another tackle for a loss. Guy has 58 tackles — tops among Patriots defensive linemen – along with a pair of sacks, four tackles for a loss, and four quarterback hits this season for the league’s No. 1 scoring defense (13.2 points per game). I’m not sure many Patriots fans were that familiar with him when he came over from the Ravens on a four-year contract for a reported $20 million in March 2017, but they have sure come to appreciate him since, especially in recent weeks.

DeVante Parker — I mean, I suppose we’re obligated to include one Dolphin here, right? When it comes to skill players on this roster, let’s just say there aren’t any Marks (Clayton or Duper), Nat Moores or Tony Nathans to be found. The leading rusher is the 37-year-old quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, with 228 yards — or 62 more than Dolphins discard Kenyan Drake had for the Cardinals in Week 16 against the Seahawks (166). Given how devoid this offense is of talent, Parker deserves a nod of respect for surpassing 1,000 yards receiving (he’s at 1,065) on 64 catches. He also has nine touchdowns, very impressive given that the Dolphins have just 30 offensive touchdowns as a team. On the downside for Parker, his success probably means that he gets to spend Sunday being shadowed by Stephon Gilmore, and a 10th touchdown is unlikely.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

On Dec. 22, the website Pro Football Talk, citing “multiple sources with knowledge of the situation,’’ reported that NFL investigators were attempting to connect the Patriots’ football operations staff to the oblivious Kraft Sports Productions videographer that shot footage of the Bengals’ sideline during a game in Cleveland three weeks ago. According to the report, “[as] one source explained it, there’s a sense that investigators want to make that connection, and a perception that they are showing frustration when unable to tie the video crew to the football employees.’’ While the report itself is annoying, hedging with words such as “perception’’ and “sense,’’ this sure does seem like something Roger Goodell and his toadies would do, doesn’t it? The longer this goes on without clarity from the commissioner’s office, the more likely it is that Goodell will do something arbitrary and dumb to make another situation so much worse than it should be. We should probably expect it at this point.

KEY MATCHUP

Patriots RB Sony Michel vs. Dolphins DL Christian Wilkins

Really, this matchup is much broader than any mano-a-mano showdown. This is about the Patriots continuing to establish the run after showing genuine progress the last two weeks. Michel has had his frustrating moments this season, but this is a player who ran for more than 300 yards and six touchdowns in the playoffs last season. That is legitimate, undeniable success under the brightest lights. That counts for something.

He can do the job when the circumstances are right, and he’s been doing the job the last two weeks, running for 185 yards on 40 carries total in the wins over the Bengals and Bills. Michel ran for 931 yards last season. He has 838 this year. He’s probably not getting the 162 yards necessary to reach 1,000 — he doesn’t have a 100-yard game this season — but it would be a small satisfaction to see him surpass last year’s rushing total after all of the frustrations and struggles that came with the injuries to Develin and Andrews and the retirement of Gronkowski, an expert blocker.

Michel and Rex Burkhead should be able to compile yardage against a Miami defense that ranks 32d in points (31.3) and yardage (400.8) allowed and 27th against the run (135.4 yards per game). The Dolphins don’t have the personnel to stop the Patriots — their leading tackler is linebacker Jerome Baker, with 116 stops.

But we do want to spend a few words acknowledging the performance of Wilkins, a Springfield native who was the 13th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Clemson. Wilkins has had a quality rookie season, playing all 15 games with two sacks and 53 tackles. Belichick described him this week as one of the “real cornerstones and building blocks’’ for the Dolphins. They just need roughly a dozen more high-end players like him.

PREDICTION, OR I WONDER IF DON SHULA STILL THINKS ABOUT THE SNOW PLOW GAME

Strange stuff does sometimes happen in these Patriots-Dolphins games, even when the teams are far from an even matchup. The Dolphins beat the Patriots last Dec. 9, 34-33, when Miami lateraled the ball all the way to victory on the final play and Gronkowski proved a step too slow as a de facto free safety. In 2004, the 12-1 Patriots lost to the 2-11 Dolphins when the immortal A.J. Feeley threw a winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes. In December 2006, Joey Harrington and Miami shut out the Patriots, 21-0. Strange stuff, I say.

There was even an odd ending to the first meeting this year. With the Dolphins desperate to get on the scoreboard in the final seconds, the Patriots took a timeout with 10 seconds left, up 43 points. Flores countered with a timeout with four seconds left. Then the Patriots blitzed Rosen on the final play, with his pass deflected into Collins’s arms. Bill Belichick and Flores — universally respected during his 15 years on Belichick’s staff — then met for a handshake that fell somewhere between “abrupt’’ and “I took Eric Mangini out of this world and I can do it to you, too.’’

If anything strange happens Sunday — and that includes Fitzpatrick playing well — it’s hard to see how even the unpredictable can affect the outcome. The Patriots are trying to lock up that bye, to prove that last week’s offensive performance wasn’t just an unsustainable flashback, and to find their groove — just as they did last year — in the regular season’s final hours. The Dolphins’ goals are more modest. They’re trying to avoid being the third team in NFL history to be shut out by an opponent twice in the same season. And they should be digging in to whether Tua Tagovailoa will be healthy enough to be their choice when their 2020 first-round pick is on the clock. There will be nothing strange about this outcome. Patriots 34, Dolphins 9