By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots play the first of two consecutive road games when they face the Miami Dolphins Sunday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium. A win by the Patriots will clinch New England's fifth consecutive AFC East title, and the team's 11th division title in 13 seasons.
The Dolphins are in second place in the AFC East with a 7-6 record, three games behind the 10-3 Patriots. When the teams last met October 8 in Foxboro, the Patriots overcame a 17-3 halftime deficit to earn a 27-17 victory. This division rivalry dates back to 1966, when the Dolphins began play as an American Football League expansion team. The Dolphins lead the all-time regular season series 49-44, but the Patriots lead the all-time postseason series 2-1. The teams last met in the playoffs on December 28, 1997 at Foxboro Stadium with the Patriots winning 17-3 in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs.
Dolphins on Offense
Miami is currently ranked 24th in the league in total offense (324.8 yards per game), 19th in passing (229.1 YPG) and 23rd in rushing (95.8 YPG). While quarterback Ryan Tannehill has not looked like an All-Pro QB this season, he is quietly on pace to become only the second Dolphins quarterback behind the legendary Dan Marino to pass for 4,000 yards in a single season. A lack of pass protection is a big factor in limiting Tannehill's effectiveness; he is the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL with 48. When he is able to stay upright, Tannehill is quite talented at spreading the ball around. His three favorite targets, wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline and tight end Charles Clay, all have between 55 and 70 receptions.
Miami's running game is led by starting tailback Lamar Miller. Miller has rushed for 567 yards this season, but he left last Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a concussion. If he is unable to go against the Patriots, look for running back Daniel Thomas to get most of the carries. Tannehill is more than capable of picking up yards on the ground when flushed out of the pocket; he is Miami's third-leading rusher.
Dolphins On Defense
Although the Dolphins are ranked only 17th in the league in total defense, they have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. Miami is one of only five NFL defenses with more than 40 sacks so far this season. Second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon is having a monster year with 11.5 sacks, while fellow DE Cameron Wake has 7.5. The Dolphins are also tied for fifth in the league in interceptions with 16. Cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson have four picks apiece. However, the Dolphins are somewhat vulnerable against the run; they are ranked only 23rd in the NFL in rushing defense, giving up 118.8 yards per game.
The Dolphins come into this game with a two-game winning streak, and they've won three of their last five. The Patriots tend to struggle against better-than-average pass defenses, and given the recent loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski, it's going to be extra difficult for New England to move the ball and score points. If New England is going to win this game, the defense needs to get pressure on Tannehill, stop the run and force turnovers. It would also help for New England to avoid falling behind on the scoreboard.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He's also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women's college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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