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What to Watch For: Patriots at Dolphins, Round Two

Friday, December 13, 2013

 

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. So if you're the Patriots, what happens when you fool 'em three straight weeks?

You might consider yourselves very, very lucky. And, living on the edge of the present-day NFL.

With come-from-behind wins each of the past three weeks over Denver, Houston and Cleveland...you might say the New England Patriots just know how to win. That may be the only plausible explanation for coming back from deficits of 24, 10 and 12 points, respectively, in those three weeks - with the victory over the Browns an especially close call, scoring 13 points in the final 61 seconds. Optimists might say the Patriots are living charmed lives...and pessimists?

They can't keep doing it again, and again. Can they?

It's true, the Patriots have begun to play more like the team expected of them on the offensive side of the ball since the midway point of the season, with Tom Brady finally having healthy, reliable targets to throw to. Then, TE Rob Gronkowski was felled by a knee injury suffered last week against Cleveland, knocking him out of action for the remainder of this season...and perhaps into next year. Fortunately for TB12, there may still be enough versatility left with the emergence of RB Shane Vereen as a pass-catcher, and WR Julian Edelman as a reliable go-to guy in clutch situations, that an opposing defense might still have difficult choices to make in coverage.

The real challenge to keeping the good times rolling will come from the other side of the ball. Defensively, the Patriots have been anything but playoff-like of late, giving up more than 400 yards per game over the past four weeks...as well as almost 29 points per game over that stretch. There's very little resistance up the middle against the run, thanks largely to the numerous injuries to key players and positions, and the secondary is hobbling and bruised.

The defense, as Bill Belichick might say, "is what it is." That's not to say they still can't stop someone when they need to, but over the past four weeks (including against Carolina), they haven't done much of that. For these Patriots to continue living large, and keep up with their winning ways...they'll need to slow someone down, at the very least.

Because if they can't, they'll only be fooling themselves.

Don't change a thing

Sounds a little strange, but at least on the offensive side of the ball, that might be the best way to keep defenses honest. There's no mistaking the Patriots will miss one of the top receivers in the game in Gronkowski, but whoever lines up as his replacement will need to keep the Dolphins "D" honest, at the least. Whether it's Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui or D.J. Williams, they'll need to run similar routes and block similar plays in order to keep Miami from shading toward coverage on Vereen, Edelman and Danny Amendola. The Pats must keep them honest.

Get off the field

That has to be the mantra for the defense going forward. The Patriots have struggled stopping the run, and they've struggled getting off the field on 3rd down. That was a big part of the problem in the first meeting with the Dolphins, which the Pats came from behind (surprise!) to win 27-17 in Foxboro on October 27th. Miami has big-play potential, with Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Charles Clay all capable of making them. The secondary will have its hands full, but winning the battle up front, where the Dolphins have been hurt (losing Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, for instance) a bit, will be key.

Find a different mojo

At least they're winning. At 10-3, the Patriots are in position to control their own destiny for the playoffs with a first-round bye. But only if they don't stumble. Miami, having lost seven straight to New England, has its back to the wall at 7-6, needing a win to keep fleeting hopes alive. A loss, and they're pretty much out. So they'll play with an urgency that will be tough for NE to match. And the way the Patriots have started slowly over the past four weeks, that could be a key ingredient in keeping them from clinching a 5th straight East Division title - and keeping the Dolphins in the mix for the final AFC playoff spot.

Projection:

Dolphins 27, Patriots 23

 

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