Patriots vs. Dolphins preview: Five things to watch for on Sunday afternoon

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

After a Week 16 win over the Jaguars improved the team's record to 11-4, the New England Patriots will be looking to end the regular season on a high note against the Miami Dolphins.

After a narrow 23-16 win over the Jaguars in Jacksonville back in Week 16, the New England Patriots have improved their record to 11-4. This week, the team will close out the regular season with a home game against the AFC East division rival Miami Dolphins (7-8).

Here are five things to watch for during the game.

4:25 PM start time a blessing for the Patriots

With both the Bengals versus Ravens and Colts versus Texans games being played at 1:00 PM Sunday, the flex of the Patriots’ Week 17 contest against the Dolphins is a huge blessing for New England. IF the Texans beat the Colts in Indianapolis, then the Patriots’ chances for a bye week will be all-but-eliminated. IF the Ravens are to lose against the Bengals, the Patriots will be locked into at least the No. 3 seed. However, IF the Ravens and the Texans both win, the Patriots may decide to intentionally lose to the Dolphins in an attempt to draw the No. 4 seed and a Colts/Texans road to the AFC title game.

Can the Patriots block Cameron Wake?

The strength of the Miami defense can be found up front with one of the conference’s most proficient pass-rushes. Leading the way for the ‘Phins is defensive end Cameron Wake, who will be headed to the Pro Bowl next month. The Miami superstar has recorded 15 sacks this season, a new career high, and will be looking to cause problems against a banged-up Patriots’ offensive line.

Does Rob Gronkowski make a return?

Superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski has been absent from the New England lineup since the conclusion of a Week 11 blowout win over the Colts. This week, we may finally see the return of the great No. 87. However, what role Gronkowksi will play in the contest is still to be determined. While I wouldn’t expect to see the former second round draft pick to see his normal workload of passes, I think Belichick will give him plenty to get his feet wet again before the playoffs.

Stopping Reggie Bush is the key to victory for the Patriots

Despite this being a "down" season filled with inconsistency, Dolphins’ tailback Reggie Bush still may be able to break the 1,000-yard mark for rushing yards on the year. With potential inclement conditions on the way and a rookie quarterback at the helm, Miami will rely heavily upon their running back during Sunday’s game. If the Patriots are to contain Bush and force Ryan Tannehill to beat them through the air, they should be in good shape.

Do the Patriots, ultimately, secure an AFC bye week?

In the end, I think the Patriots will wind up with one of the AFC’s top two spots when all the dust has settled late Sunday evening. I think it will be the Broncos who defeat the Chiefs easily and clinch the No. 1 spot while the Texans will fall in Indianapolis and slip to the No. 3 seed. The Patriots will, of course, already know whether or not they can chose their own opponent based upon the result of their game against Miami before kick-off.

For more New England Patriots coverage, visit our team blog, Pats Pulpit.

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