By Abe Gutierrez
Looking to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by locking down the top seed in the AFC, the New England Patriots travel to the Sunshine State to face the Miami Dolphins in Week 17. Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida will be the site for a game that still has plenty at stake for head coach Bill Belichick and the visiting Pats.
That's because a win over the intradivisional rivals would assure New England would not have to pack a single suitcase until it's time to travel to the Lone Star State in early February (should they make it that far, of course). However, even with a fifth Super Bowl at stake, the Patriots are handling this week's talking points in true Belichick fashion.
"Everyone wants to talk about home-field advantage and playoffs and stuff like that," said Patriots free safety Devin McCourty doing his best to downplay the significance of a win on Sunday. "We just know the most important thing as a team is playing good football."
New England Patriots record: 13-2-0
In spite of the fact that Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season, the Patriots still came into the 2016 NFL campaign as the Super Bowl LI favorites. With one game left on the regular season, the best quarterback/coach duo in NFL history could go a long way as far as solidifying those expectations by clocking down home-field throughout.
However, after watching what happened to Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr last week (broken fibula), some observers believe it prudent to monitor Brady's minutes in the finale to keep him out of harm's way. Naturally, there have been no shortage of questions regarding the way Belichick will and/or should utilize his star signal-caller.
"No," Brady said when asked if he and Belichick had discussed his playing time against Miami this week. "We were pretty focused on this week. It was just a quick six days before these last two games, and the schedule has been pretty tough. We have eight days before we play Miami, but I expect to go out there and try to be at my best."
With the best record in the National Football League (pending the result of the MNF game between the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys), New England will go into the season clincher at 13-2-0. That mark includes New England's 6-2 record at home and a perfect 7-0 road mark.
The Pats are also 4-1 against intradivisional foes, 10-1 versus the AFC Conference, 3-1 versus non-conference opponents, and come in riding the momentum of a six-game winning streak.
Patriots on offense
The Patriots offensive coordinator is none other than Josh McDaniels. Under his tutelage, New England's offense comes into Week 17 ranked fourth in points (27.1) and passing yards per game (268.8), as well as fifth in total yards (385.6) and eighth in rushing yards per contest (116.8).
It's clear by looking at those numbers that New England features a very potent pass-first offense with the ability to put up points on the board with ease. With Brady still at the top of his game, the Patriots look to be unstoppable heading into the postseason.
However, this team is anything but one-dimensional, mainly because of the fact that running back LeGarrette Blount is putting the finishing touches in his best campaign as an NFL pro. In his seventh season out of Oregon, Blount has rushed for a career-high 1110 yards on 285 carries (3.9 average) to go along with 17 touchdowns.
Through the air, everyone knows where Brady wants to go with the football, yet no one can stop it. In terms of receiving yards, New England's top three receivers are Julian Edelman (90 receptions, 955 yards, 2 TDs), running back James White (56 receptions, 530 yards, 5 TDs) and tight end Martellus Bennett (52 receptions, 668 yards, 6 TDs).
Patriots on defense
Matt Patricia is the Patriots defensive coordinator, and this year, his unit has enjoyed one of its most successful campaigns in recent memory. With one game left to play, the Pats' defense ranks tops in the NFL in points (15.7) and third in rushing yards per game (89.5), while ranking eighth in total yards (329.5) along with placing 14th in passing yards per contest (240.1).
Clearly, Miami's defense will have to rise to the occasion on game day, as it cannot afford to fall behind the Pats in the scoreboard in the early going. Also, Fins running back Jay Ajayi must remain patient throughout the game, as the Pats' resistance is sure to make things difficult for Miami's bruising back.
Having that said, the lone area where Adam Gase's club can hone in when it comes to game-planning is clearly through the air. Expect to see plenty of play-action plays downfield to try and test those Patriots defenders. Nevertheless, the following players are sure to make life difficult for the home Fins: Trey Flowers (41 tackles and 7 sacks), Jabaal Sheard (32 tackles, 5 sacks) and Chris Long (34 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble) just to name a few.
Patriots players to watch: Tom Brady, Logan Ryan
Probably until the moment he decides to retire, four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady will always be the Pats' offensive player to watch. Despite missing the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady's numbers are extraordinary. With one game to go, he's tallied 3278 yards on 266-for-399 passing (68 percent completions), 25 touchdowns and just two interceptions to earn a quarterback rating of 110.7.
On the opposite side of the rock, the Patriots defender to watch comes into Week 17 leading the team in tackles. In his fourth season out of Rutgers, cornerback Logan Ryan leads the way with 85 tackles (68 total, 17 assist), a sack, a forced fumble and a pick.
With so much riding on the line, NFL oddsmakers believe the Patriots will go into South Florida and take care of business in the season clincher. NFL Week 17 point spreads dictate that the New England Patriots (-10) are double-digit favorites versus the Miami Dolphins (+10) despite being on the road. Opening kickoff is slated for Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET and it will be broadcast live on CBS.
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