The New England Patriots won their ninth game of the 2018 season with a 24-10 victory last Sunday over the Minnesota Vikings. New England has a chance to wrap-up their tenth AFC East title after they guaranteed they will finish with a record of .500 or better for the 18th straight season.
The Patriots outscored the Vikings 14-0 after the Vikings kicked a field goal in the third quarter to tie the game at ten apiece. After a first half punctuated by missed opportunities to build a lead, the Patriots went three-and-out and then missed a field goal allowing Minnesota to tie the game.
The tie snapped the Patriots’ offense came to life as they moved the ball easily against a tiring Vikings defense with a four play, 75 yard drive punctuated by a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Josh Gordon. Another stop and the Patriots again moved quickly into the red zone as James Develin scored his second touchdown of the game.
While the Vikings had a strong defense and potentially explosive offense, the Patriots face a different kind of test on Sunday as they travel to their personal house of horrors. The Patriots are 4-15 in Miami in the month of the December in the history of the franchise. All time, the Patriots are 16-37 in Miami.
Tom Brady is 7-9 in his career in Miami. In his last six games in Miami (2012 through 2017) he has had a quarterback rating of 74.8, 85.7, 69.7, 76.3, 130.4, and 59.5 (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). Not surprisingly, the Patriots are 2-4 in those games.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. The underrated Ian Eagle will handle play-by-play duties with Hall of Fame quarterback but well past-his-prime analyst Dan Fouts doing color (and not knowing who half of the players are). Even Washburn will work from the sidelines.
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and talk radio star Scott Zolak adding his brutally honest color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The victory over the Vikings was the sixth time in 2018 that the New England defense held an opponent to 20 or fewer points–all six of those games being wins for the Patriots. This week they have the challenge of Miami head coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and an offense that has got the job done the last two weeks despite injuries on the offensive line and having lost playmakers Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant and with Danny Amendola ad DeVante Parker getting healthy.
The New England defense has been on point in four of their last five games and are now in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed. The defense is ninth in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed (the definition of “bend but don’t break”). The defense has continued to struggle on third down as they are ranked 26th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 41.7% of the time (65 of 156).
How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum against the tough-to-beat-at-home Miami Dolphins?
The Patriots’ defense has created two or more turnovers in all but three games in 2018. The only game they did not create a turnover was in their week ten 34-10 loss to Tennessee. The games with less than two turnovers were their 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions and their wins over Green Bay and the Jets.
The New England defense has created 20 total turnovers–good for ninth in the NFL. They have 14 interceptions and six fumbles recovered by the defense/special teams. The defense has been the typical “bend but don’t break” Bill Belichick defense that needs turnovers in order to be effective.
New England has leaned on their dynamic duo at cornerback with Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty. Gilmore has been arguably the best cornerback in football this season and should be an All-Pro. McCourty has been excellent as well since Cleveland gave him to the Patriots for almost nothing.
The team leader in interceptions is slot cornerback Jonathan Jones. Jones has lost playing time to undrafted rookie free agent J.C. Jackson who looks like the next Malcolm Butler so far in his short career so far. Jackson stepped in last week and played a key role in slowing down the potent Vikings passing attack (yes, Jackson got away with two non-calls that should have been defensive pass interference).
Ryan Tannehill is starting his third game since having to sit out since getting injured…well, no one knew when since he was questionable with a shoulder injury but was seemingly fine against Chicago then was a full participant before being out and then being week-to-week for five weeks before coming back after the bye. The NFL investigated the fishy maneuvering of Tannehill’s injury status but since the league office only cares when it is the Patriots, nothing came of it.
Tannehill’s stats look solid: he completed 33 of 49 for 341 yards, five touchdowns and an interception in those two games. However, the eyeball test shows that this offense is stuck in first gear. Tannehill led three touchdown drives against the Colts but wasted good field position on one drive and when the clock hit the fourth quarter the Dolphins went three-and-out on both drives and gained negative one yard combined.
Against the Bills last week, the Dolphins stalled out and punted seven times. They were saved not by their superb defense but rather the inadequacies of the Buffalo offense. The Dolphins could not even gain 200 yards of total offense and were saved by a wide-open Charles Clay not being able to bring in a potential game-winning touchdown in the end zone on fourth down.
Miami gets back wide receiver Danny Amendola but the passing offense misses former Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson who was the engine who made the offense go in the first half of the season. Miami had the small but speedy Jakeem Grant take a larger role with Wilson out, but Grant was injured as well. Miami has to lean on the continually struggling DeVante Parker and Leonte Carroo behind Kenny Stills.
Stills has struggled with extra attention his way (he has just 24 receptions in 11 games played for 369 yards) but he leads all receivers with five touchdowns. New England has options at cornerback with Stills and likely will include a safety rolled his way. The Patriots would love to give Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty the chance to swipe a long pass away from the Dolphins downfield threat.
New England cornerback Stephon GIlmore was a surprise addition to the injury report this week with a ankle injury on Friday and is listed as questionable for the game. His loss would be huge and puts more pressure on the secondary to step-up and create turnovers to get off the field.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against Miami’s offense this week:
STOP THE RUN:
The Miami Dolphins’ offense has been tough to decipher in 2018. They put up 541 yards of total offense against the mighty Chicago Bears defense in their week six overtime win; two weeks before that they put up 172 yards of total offense in Foxboro in their blowout loss to the Patriots.
They’ve had games where they rush for 128 yards and 131 yards and lose (in Cincinnati and in Green Bay), and then games like last week against Buffalo where they win managing just 175 yards of total offense. In two games against the New York Jets the Dolphins passing attack mustered just 122 yards and 104 yards–but they somehow won both those games.
The Dolphins are 6-6 and have won two stinkers against the horrible Jets and an ugly performance versus the lowly Bills. They’ve beat another terrible team–Oakland in week three–and that head-scratcher against Chicago in week six. In week one they beat Tennessee in a game that took over seven hours due to weather delays.
For a team that is 6-6 and seemingly in the race for a wild card spot, they are simply not good on either side of the football. For the season they have been outscored by their opponents by 56 points. Miami is 3-2 when they rush for 120 yards or more and 3-1 when they rush for less than 65 yards. How this team is 6-6 is a mystery.
Their passing offense ranks near the bottom of the league with just 2,393 yards passing, 28th in the NFL. The running game is not all that much better–1,232 yards rushing good for 24th in the NFL–but at least they average 4.3 yards per attempt which is good for 18th in the league.
Having had the inconsistent Ryan Tannehill (this is his sixth season in the NFL) and the limited Brock Osweiler behind center, the Dolphins’ passing attack has struggled with consistency. Their best offensive player is the explosive running back Kenyan Drake–who the Dolphins continue to split playing time with 35 year old running back Frank Gore.
Drake is a weapon in the receiving game and a threat to break a long run every time he touches the football. In his third season, he seemed ready for a big role in 2018. Instead, he has seen his role diminish as the season wears on with more and more playing time going to Gore.
Drake has yet to have 15 carries in a game and in the past four weeks has had just 26 total rushing attempts. Gore, on the other hand, has 55 total rushing attempts in those previous four games. Gore has had four carries of 20 or more yards this season out of 139 carries while Drake has four carries of 20 or more yards this season out of just 96 carries in addition to three receptions of 20 or more yards.
The Patriots are 13th in the NFL with 1,280 rushing yards allowed. Last week the Vikings gashed the New England defense with Dalvin Cook gaining 84 yards on just nine carries (over nine yards per rushing attempt). The Patriots focused their defense on the Vikings’ passing attacked and dared Minnesota to run the ball. Instead, the Vikings passed the ball 44 times and ran just 13 times.
Lawrence Guy has been the best run defender on the defensive line for New England as Malcom Brown and Danny Shelton have struggled this season. Shelton has seen his snaps disappear as pass rusher Adam Butler gets more time on the defensive line. Linebacker Elandon Roberts has improved throughout his third season giving New England three solid linebackers along with Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.
The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: Take advantage of the mistakes Ryan Tannehill will inevitably make. To get Tannehill in those situations the Patriots need to first stop the running game of the Dolphins and make them one-dimensional.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01