When the Dolphins pass the football
Jarvis Landry, who has been limping toward the end of the season with a bad knee, continues to miss parts of practice during the week and then plays well on game days. He is the player the Patriots defense might most want to address. He will get much of their attention. That means players such as Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker, who has been coming on of late, must step up and make plays for the Dolphins. This all assumes quarterback Ryan Tannehill is upright, protected by the offensive line and accurate with his throws — a bad assumption lately getting all those things to work together. The Dolphins hope right tackle Ja’Wuan James returns to the lineup for the first time since he injured his toe in October. The Patriots are mostly healthy in the back end and are No. 11 against the pass this season.
When the Dolphins run the football
This is officially a problem for the next coach and offensive coordinator. The Dolphins failed to establish their running game this season. They failed in calling enough running plays. They failed in giving Lamar Miller enough opportunities. They failed in establishing a good platoon system between Miller and rookie Jay Ajayi. So, in conclusion, Miami’s 27th-ranked running game was something of a major failure in 2015. Miller might get one more chance at an improbable 1,000-yard season before he goes off to free agency. The Patriots have been well-coached (not a shocker) and disciplined in their run defense. They have the No. 8 run defense in the NFL. Part of that is because teams often throw on New England because they’re behind so much. The way to move on them is by playing complementary football where defense keeps the Patriots from taking a big lead and offense is stubborn about the run.
ADVANTAGE: New England
When the Patriots pass the football
This is how the Patriots make hay. They have the second-best pass offense in the NFL. And although Tom Brady used to struggle against the Dolphins when Miami had a competitive team, that is no longer the case. Brady threw for 456 yards and four touchdowns in the teams’ first meeting this year. The Patriots have scored 77 points in the past two games against the Dolphins. Tight end Rob Gronkowski continues to be Brady’s most dangerous and favorite weapon, especially considering that slot receiver Julian Edelman is out with a foot injury and Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola are also nursing injuries. New England’s best offensive tackles are out or injured as well, so … Olivier Vernon? The Dolphins would be smart to double Gronkowski everywhere he goes and hope the Patriots don’t pick on inexperienced corners Tyler Patmon, Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain too much.
ADVANTAGE: New England
When the Patriots run the football
They have lost their leading rusher (LaGarrette Blount) to injury. They have lost their second-leading rusher (Dion Lewis) to injury. This team is patching things together in the backfield and the latest patch is the addition of Steven Jackson, who signed recently after spending most of his career in St. Louis and Atlanta. Will Jackson even play? It could be a good idea to get him some reps to knock off the rust. Or maybe the Pats want to save him for the playoffs. Whatever happens, it is pretty clear that the No. 29 rushing offense isn’t much of a concern for anybody … except maybe the Dolphins because they have the No. 30 rush defense and multiple starting linebackers — Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins — might not be playing in this game. By the way, Ndamukong Suh had two solo tackles in the first meeting. The Patriots know how to erase good players when they want to.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has made 77 percent of his field goals (17 of 22) from 50 yards or longer, so he is a weapon from long range. He also has a better field-goal percentage than predecessor Adam Vinatieri, who was considered a great kicker for New England. Gostkowski also leads the NFL with 66 touchbacks. So the Patriots have the kicking advantage. But the Dolphins have the punting advantage because rookie Matt Darr has been stellar, helping the Dolphins with the No. 3 gross average (47.6) and the No. 17 net average of 39.7. Amendola has been nursing a knee injury and has been limited in practice. Not having him would be a loss for the Patriots’ punt-return game because he leads the NFL in punt-return average.
Stop. Just. Stop.
ADVANTAGE: New England