After pulling to 8-3 with a blowout victory over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on Thanksgiving night, the New England Patriots will hit the road for their second consecutive AFC East divisional contest, traveling south to Miami for a showdown with the Dolphins. Here are five key factors to watch for.
Who covers Davone Bess?
Davone Bess has been an absolute Patriots killer for the entire five years he's spent in the NFL since signed by Miami as an undrafted free agent back in 2008. He provides the ‘Phins with a quick and shifty slot presence and can be relied upon to catch most of the balls thrown his way. With Miami only employing one other real threat at wide receiver, in the form of Brian Hartline, the Patriots will have their choice of how they want to cover Bess who will likely be lined up in the slot on most Dolphins' plays. Despite his current struggles, I'd expect Kyle Arrington to be given the first chance to match-up with Bess, as his skill-set is best fit for a slot corner/nickel back position. If he struggles, rookie Alfonzo Dennard may be moved to the inside to cover Bess while newcomer Aqib Talib is left on the outside against Hartline.
Can the banged-up New England line block for Tom Brady?
The unquestioned strength of the Miami defense is their stout front seven and explosive pass rush. Led by former Penn State Nittany Lion Cameron Wake (9.5), the Dolphins sit 9th in the NFL in sacks with 29 in eleven games played. Veteran defensive end Randy Starks has 4.5 sacks of his own, while Olivier Vernon and Koa Misi have 2.5 each. This will be a tough match-up for a New England offensive line that has been riddled with injuries over the past few weeks. The possible return of Logan Mankins would make a huge difference for the Patriots, but only a complete effort from everyone on the line will be able to contain one of the league's best pass rush groups.
Does anyone have a running game?
Stevan Ridley has far exceeded the expectations of Patriots' fans so far this season, accumulating a total of 936 yards and 8 touchdowns, but hasn't exactly been a perfect model of consistency in the New England backfield. Ridley ran for 97 yards and a touchdown last week against the Jets, but most of that came in garbage time when the result had already been determined. In Week 11, he scored a touchdown, but only racked up 28 yards on the ground against one of the league's worst rush defenses (Indianapolis). In Miami, Reggie Bush had a bit of a breakout game last week, running for 87 yards and a score against the visiting Seahawks. However, the former USC Trojan rushed for a total of just 82 yards over the course of the previous three weeks. With both running attacks struggling to find consistency and each team's defense strong up-front, we may see a game in which both squads decide to abandon the run all together.
A shootout on South Beach?
Entering Sunday's action, Miami and New England sit 26th and 29th, respectively, in passing yards allowed. The two divisional rivals have allowed a grand total of 36 touchdown passes between them. The Sunday forecast for Miami, FL shows just south of 80 degrees with a 30 percent chance of precipitation. With these two groups of defensive backs on the field, that precipitation may very well be the only thing able to stop quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ryan Tannehill.
Patriots can clinch the division crown
A New England victory on Sunday afternoon would put them four games ahead of the Dolphins with just four left to play and a tiebreaker in hand, sealing another Patriots division title. Even if the Patriots aren't able to get things done this week, it'll be awfully tough for Miami to catch them. With the division race sewn up, the Patriots would then be able to turn their focus to catching either Baltimore or Houston for one of the AFC's two top seeds and the bye week that goes along with it. The importance of that bye week is simply invaluable and the Patriots will have to be near-perfect the rest of the way if they hope to get one. Either way, a fourth straight divisional title is a remarkable achievement.
Prediction: While I do believe that the Dolphins can pose a definite threat if the Patriots are caught looking ahead to next week's marquee showdown with the Houston Texans, I just can't see Bill Belichick allowing his squad to overlook a divisional opponent. Patriots' defense shows small signs of improvement (gasp!) in a 31-17 road victory.
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