Although their record is just fine at 5-2, it’s clear the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady aren’t quite clicking on all cylinders early in the season, ranking 20th in the NFL in points per game and gaining just 4.8 yards per play, good for 28th in the league.
But the Dolphins are preparing as if they’re facing the 2007 Patriots.
“You’re playing the division champs, the beasts of the last 10 years,” receiver Brian Hartline said. “I know that to say you treat a week any different than another week is probably wrong, but it’s just the feeling you get when you understand this has been a dominant team in the division for a while, so that should create more attention to detail.”
New England lacks the elite weapons it has had in the past, with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez all moving on for different reasons and with tight end Rob Gronkowski playing in just his second game back from back and forearm surgeries. Despite the new faces on New England’s offense, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin is treating the Patriots as if they’re the same old division juggernaut.
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“I think they’re just working through. All teams in the National Football League have to deal with transition,” Philbin said. “They’re no different, we’re no different, and I think they’ve worked through that nicely. And I think they’ve got a good group, and they’re making nice progress on offense.”
It’s no surprise the Patriots have been a little rusty on offense with all the transition, but the statistical decline of Brady has been dramatic, with diminished numbers in key areas.
Among the 38 NFL quarterbacks who have thrown at least 50 passes this season, Brady ranks 30th in passer rating, 33rd in completion percentage and 35th in yards per attempt.
“I’m not buying any of that,” Philbin said to the suggestion that Brady’s abilities are declining. “This guy is one of the best ever. They are playing well, and we have to expect them to play extremely well at home.”
Brady’s tendency to protect the ball hasn’t changed, throwing five interceptions in 285 attempts. His interception rate of 1.75 percent still puts him among the league’s 10 most reliable passers.
And while Brady has had to adjust to a new corps of wide receivers, he has benefited from playing behind New England’s veteran offensive line.
“Their offensive line is very good,” Philbin said. “I think Dante Scarnecchia is one of the best offensive line coaches in the National Football League.”
Defensive lineman Jared Odrick said the Patriots offensive line is the best the Dolphins have seen on tape this year.
“They work really well together. They’re a group that you can tell they all know each other’s style of play. It’s cohesive, and they play hard,” Odrick said. “Maybe it is [overlooked]. It’s my job to focus on it and not overlook it.”
Brady is coming off a poor performance against the rival Jets, an overtime loss in which he completed 22 of 45 for 228 yards with an interception.
But the Dolphins coaching staff is aware that Brady is capable of returning to MVP form at any moment. Philbin said he likes to study the film from last year’s matchups with the Patriots but that there isn’t enough time in the week to study film any more than a year old.
“We look at those games, and we look at some of the postseason games they played a year ago,” Philbin said. “Then we have a good seven games — that’s 500 or so plays of offense — from this year. That’s a lot to digest.”
While Brady has been good enough to lead the Patriots to a 5-2 record, he hasn’t played up to the astronomical standards he set for himself. But Philbin said he has seen improvement in New England’s young receivers, and Gronkowski should provide a familiar target now that he’s back in the lineup.
Brady hasn’t looked like an MVP yet, but the Dolphins aren’t willing to risk that the player with Hall of Famer credentials will stay down for long, especially in a division game following a loss.