The 10-3 New England Patriots and the 7-6 Miami Dolphins will meet again for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The last time the two sides crossed paths was three months ago at Sun Life Stadium, as the Dolphins sent the Patriots back to Foxborough with an 0-1 record. But the teams and the players have since changed.
For the Dolphins, starting running back Knowshon Moreno, right tackle Branden Albert, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and safety Louis Delmas have all been placed on injured reserve. And for the Patriots, running back Stevan Ridley and linebacker Jerod Mayo are among the headliners who have followed suit. Even so, both sides have found their footing for the final stretch of the regular season despite the attrition.
New England could clinch the AFC East with a win, while Miami could stay in the AFC playoff picture by doing the same for a third consecutive game dating back to 2013. Here are a few notes to monitor before the Week 15 matchup gets underway.
Miami Runways: The Dolphins have conceded 661 rushing yards over the last three weeks, including 183 yards versus the Baltimore Ravens, 277 yards versus the New York Jets, and 201 yards versus the Denver Broncos the week prior. Miami’s defensive front currently sits 22nd in the league against the run, netting 123.5 yards per game at a 4.4-yard clip. New England’s running game was limited to 83 yards on 19 carries against Miami’s four-man front in the opener, yet it’d make sense to see quarterback Tom Brady hand the ball off at a higher rate this Sunday. The Patriots place 20th in the NFL with 1,437 rushing yards and 25th with 3.9 yards per carry, and haven’t tallied more than 90 rush yards in a game since Jonas Gray’s 201-yard day against the Indianapolis Colts, but committing to the ground should set up opportunities for play action through the air. Halfbacks LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen figure to have a hand in both respects.
Miller, Tannehill and Containment: The Dolphins’ offense may be without Moreno, who amassed 134 yards in the team’s last meeting with the Patriots, but it would be remiss to overlook just whom is still within it. The 5-foot-10, 224-pound Lamar Miller stepped in behind Moreno to collect 59 rushing yards and 19 receiving yards last time versus the Patriots, and tacked on a touchdown catch beyond edge defender Rob Ninkovich in the flats. Containment is something New England will look to emphasize this time, and the front is expected to do so in a 4-2 nickel more than the 3-4 that was deployed in the opener. The Patriots managed to keep Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the pocket in Week 1, but the former Texas A&M wide receiver has gotten into space for 295 rushing yards on the year, including a month-long stretch that tallied him over 47 per game. Look for the Patriots to call upon Alan Branch, Sealver Siliga and Vince Wilfork to maintain the inside gaps, while Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers, as well as Jamie Collins and Jonathan Casillas work the flats and second level. New England has handled the run well of late, allowing an average of 67.2 rushing yards since Week 9. If Hightower and Chandler Jones are healthy enough to play, the trend could continue.
Assignments in the Patriots’ Secondary: In his first regular-season game in a Patriots uniform, cornerback Darrelle Revis primarily traced Dolphins wideout Mike Wallace and was responsible for two catches, 36 yards and a score. And based on Wallace’s deep speed and Revis’ undeterred footwork, that is expected to be a matchup the New England secondary turns to again. Yet with the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Brandon Browner back on the field, there should be a different matchup across from them. It was cornerback Alfonzo Dennard who got the nod along with Revis in Week 1. But while Dennard intercepted a pass and gave up just two catches for 25 yards, the starting role has since become Browner’s. Browner may very well take on Brian Hartline for the majority of his snaps in Week 15, while nickelback Kyle Arrington takes on rookie slot receiver Jarvis Landry. Free safety Devin McCourty is also one to keep an eye on in assignments, as the converted cornerback dropped down to cover San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates for a sequence of plays last weekend.
New England’s Pass Protection Bracing for the Rush: The last time the Patriots’ offensive line encountered the Dolphins, Brady was sacked four times, hit six times and hurried 16 times, according to Pro Football Focus. The quarterback fumbled twice in the process and was unable to step up in the pocket to throw, finishing 29-of-56 passing as the Patriots fell, 33-20. The group will look different this go-around, as Jordan Devey and Marcus Cannon were the starting guards in Week 1, but the goal for the pass protection will remain the same. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is expected to revisit left end Cameron Wake, who totaled two sacks in what was the blocker’s first game back after suffering a season-ending leg injury in 2013. And left tackle Nate Solder is expected to revisit right end Olivier Vernon, who got to Brady for one sack in Miami. How left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork and right guard Ryan Wendell control the traffic on the inside will dictate the flow outside. Wake and Vernon have combined for 16 sacks this season.
Gronkowski’s Return to Form: Rob Gronkowski was getting his sea legs back when the Patriots last played Miami. He caught four passes for 40 yards and a touchdown, but was targeted by Brady 11 times over his managed 38 snaps and dropped one of them. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end has looked like a different player over New England’s 12 games since. His strength and agility have returned, and he’s returned as an every-down threat as a result. Gronkowski played all but three snaps a week ago and found the end zone for his 10th touchdown of the season. He’s three yards short of his second career 1,000-yard year, but he will look to get well beyond it against the Miami defense that has three off-ball linebackers and two cornerbacks listed as either doubtful or questionable to play Sunday.