The New England Patriots (11-4) will meet the Miami Dolphins (7-8) in Foxboro this Sunday needing a win and loss from either the Broncos or Texans to clinch a first round bye. The Dolphins are looking to finish at a very respectable 8-8 after most people had them ranked no better than 30th in the preseason power rankings.
The Patriots won the first meeting between these two teams 23-16 in Miami. The Patriots' defense was able to keep the Miami offense in check as Ryan Tannehill completed less than 50% of his passes and Reggie Bush ran for only 64 yards. On the other hand, Tom Brady only threw for 238 yards and one touchdown as well as an interception, and Stevan Ridley struggled a bit against a tough Dolphins rush defense. The Dolphins historically tend to play the Patriots much tougher at home than in New England.
Ryan Tannehill has had a solid rookie season, passing for 3,059 yards, 12 TDs, 12 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 76.9. Reggie Bush has averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry. Even so, they are 25th in the NFL averaging only 19.2 points per game. On the other hand, they are much better on defense giving up only 19.3 points per game, good for 6th in the NFL.
The key matchups when the Dolphins have the ball will be Brian Hartline v. whoever lines up against him in the secondary. Hartline has had already racked up a 1,000 yard season and could give a depleted the Patriots' secondary problems if Talib and Dennard are both unable to play this week. Vince Wilfork is key to the Patriots' defensive effort as the Dolphins have a tough time scoring if Reggie Bush is unable to move the ball consistently.
This game is extremely important for the Patriots, who have had two straight lackluster performances and need a solid win to gain some momentum before the playoffs. However, the Patriots will know the outcome of both the Houston – Indianapolis and the Baltimore - Cincinnati game prior to their kickoff at 4:25. With Denver (12-3) unlikely to lose at home against the inferior Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) with a first round bye on the line, depending on the outcome of the early games, the Patriots may have reason to sit some of their starters for good portions of the game to heal from injury. A loss may not hurt and could actually help the Patriots if they were to fall to the fourth seed, which likely offers an easier rode to the super bowl than the third position. The fourth seed will play the Colts and then likely go to Houston for a divisional round contest with the Texans, while the third seed will have to play the Bengals and then likely go into Denver to play the NFL's hottest team, the Denver Broncos.
Prediction: Regardless of what happens in the one o'clock games, Belichick will role out all of his starters and build momentum going into the playoffs. The Patriots build an early lead and win easily 35-17.
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