The New England Patriots (5-2) come home to Gillette Stadium to take on the 3-3 Miami Dolphins, fresh off their Week 7 loss in New York. The game will be shown this Sunday at 1 PM EST on CBS.
I think we can all agree that the sooner we forget last week’s game against the Jets the better. Every time I picture Rex Ryan celebrating the win, and he and Rob Ryan having a celebratory brother’s conference call, I die a little bit inside.
However, it was hard not to be a little bit impressed by these New York Jets. Geno Smith will almost certainly develop into a dynamite QB over time (at least compared to Mark Sanchez) and their defensive line is beastly. The Jets have absolutely no business being 4-3, but here we are.
That being said…if Rob Gronkowski somehow reels in that highlight one-handed catch (or if Tom Brady gives a more catchable ball), the game’s over, and the Patriots win. And if Chris Jones doesn’t push his man (or if the refs decide that since it wasn’t a dangerous move, or was nowhere near the progressing play, that it wasn’t worth callin) and there’s no penalty, the Pats have a pretty good chance at moving downfield a bit after Folk’s miss, and Gostkowski hits a long one for the win. It was ugly (though not a blowout) and was absolutely winnable for New England. So is this a case of the Patriots being a lot worse than we first thought, or the Jets being a lot better?
I’m personally leaning a little bit of the first, a lot more the latter. I think that the Jets’ defense is a really tough unit, and Geno Smith is progressing quite nicely as a threat through the air but also on the ground. And as bad as the Patriots looked, it’s hard to be great when you’re missing the best player on each level of the defense, as well as one of your most sure-handed receivers. With the return of Danny Amendola, the possible return of Aqib Talib, and one more week’s progression of Rob Gronkowski, this Pats team is immediately better.
So here are some things to watch going into this week’s game against the Dolphins.
Key Matchup: Pats’ D-Line vs. the Dolphins O-Line
Amidst all of the injuries and the struggles in the passing game, it’s been easy to miss that Chandler Jones is putting together a really strong sophomore effort. In 7 games, he’s accumulated 6.5 sacks (already .5 more than all of last season), and is tied for fourth on the team with 38 total tackles. His running mate across the line, Rob Ninkovich is a little quieter in the pass rush, with only on the one sack, but has also forced a tackle and recorded 35 tackles on the season. In between them, while they haven’t reproduced Wilfork’s effect on opposing running games, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have been feisty in the pass rush, Jones especially (3.5 sacks in the last 3 games). And in a big move this past week, the Patriots welcomed back veteran end Andre Carter, who, if nothing else, has a tremendous nose for getting to the QB and will be a tough backup for Jones/Ninkovich, and may come in with them in some packages.
(Also, I love the signing of Sealver Siliga to the practice squad, who’s been through San Francisco and Seattle before landing here. If those teams, initially at least, saw something in the 6-2, 325 lb lineman, then I’m totally on board in a low-cost, possibly high-reward move. At the very least he’s a big body who can clog up running lanes).
And oh boy do they have a good matchup against this Dolphins pass protection unit. Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo have been absolute messes at the tackles, and even recently acquired Bryant McKinnie may have a hard time making an immediate impact. As a whole, the Dolphins offensive line has been decidedly average in run blocking, but 30th in the league in pass protection, allowing Ryan Tannehill to be sacked a whopping 26 games thus far. While Tannehill does have some dangerous weapons at his disposable, if the Pats get their hits on him, this is could be a much easier game for New England than in recent weeks.
3 Questions Heading Into This Week’s Game
- Can the offensive line stand up to the Dolphins’ pass rush?
So far this season, the Patriots have done a pretty good job in protecting Tom Brady, and on some plays he’s had astounding time in the pocket. The Dolphins, however, represent perhaps the toughest matchup they’ve faced outside of the Bengals. Cameron Wake is well-established as an absolute monster coming off the edge, Dion Jordan is an up-and-comer, and they have a really underrated defensive line with Paul Soliai, Olivier Vernon, and Randy Starks. The key matchup here is Cameron Wake vs. right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, a matchup that favors Miami. It will be crucial for the Patriots offensive line to keep Brady on his feet, as well as help out backs Stevan “Van Riddles” and Brandon Bolden in the running game.
2. Can the passing game step up?
I feel like I write about this every week, and by now it’s getting a little boring. Receivers are dropping passes. Brady’s (pretty shockingly) not hitting his targets. Danny Amendola can’t stay on the field, and Rob Gronkowski has just found his way back. We’ve yet to see the entire Pats’ receiving corps healthy and playing, but this week we may actually get our chance.
Miami’s defense is 20th in the league in points allowed, and 21st in yards given up per game. Yes, this is a down year for the Patriots’ offense, but the Miami secondary is far from elite, and if Brady would ever be motivated to succeed, it would be the week after a loss at the hands of Rex Ryan and months of questioning his ability to throw the ball. I’d be surprised if Brady doesn’t try to air it out a bit more, with Gronkowski a strong deep threat, and Aaron Dobson no longer burdened with being the Patriots no. 1 target. Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Kenbrell Thompkins are all solid in the slot, and Brandon Bolden has been decent in the backfield (although I can’t wait for Shane Vereen to come back). If there was ever a statement game, it’s here, two weeks before the bye and after a brutal division loss.
3. When oh when will the Pats’ red zone woes disappear?
I mean seriously. Last week, the Patriots ran three red zone plays, all of them on the ground, resulting in exactly zero points. Obviously having a healthy and reintegrated Gronk helps here, but dear lord if I have to see LeGarrette Blount bounce into that goal line and fall down like a chopped tree again I will lose it, or, like last week, watch Corey Dillon highlights with tears streaming down my face. Since Brady’s fumble the ball on the Bills’ one yard line in Week 1 and in Week 4 against the Falcons, it seems like the Brady sneak has disappeared from the New England red zone offense. Ridley has been the most potent option on the goal line thus far, but here’s hoping that Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady are looking for more varied red zone approaches, hopefully through the air.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 20
Thus far on the season I’m only 4-3 in picking Patriots’ game, predicting wins against the Bengals and Jets, and a loss against the Saints. While all those games were somewhat close, I pin my poor prediction record on injuries and the bizarre dissolution of the Patriots’ pass offense. Or you know, my general ineptitude as a sports writer.
I actually like this Dolphins’ team, and they’ve got some real weapons on offense and defense, and I think Ryan Tannehill will always be a solid quarterback in the NFL. But there are three things I can’t and won’t do: 1) Pick Brady to lose two in a row 2) Pick Brady to lose two in a row in a return to Foxboro, and 3) Pick Brady to lose two in a row in a return to Foxboro after losing to the New York Jets. I like this game as a statement game from Brady, who’s been under a lot of criticism lately (and rightly), helped by one more week with Gronkowski and the likely return of Danny Amendola. The Pats’ passing game will be helped even more with a balanced running game too, and Stevan Ridley has proved that he is far and away their most dynamic back (4.73 yds per carry in his last three games and no fumbles since Week 1). If Aqib Talib comes back and keeps Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace in check, then I like this pick even more.
Even without Talib, look for the Patriots’ pass rush to get to Tannehill and force some turnovers, keeping the Patriots in the game and squeaking out a close win.