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 offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win against the Vikings was the fourth game of the season the Patriots scored less than 25 points and won. The Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three is now seventh in the NFL with 331 points scored in 12 games.
Coming out of week three, New England ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs. The Patriots climbed back into the top ten converting just 40.8% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage of 63.4% (26 of 41 drives) is good for 12th in the NFL.
How do the Patriots plan to maintain their offensive momentum against a Miami Dolphins team that has inexplicably had the Patriots’ number consistently when playing in South Florida?
OPEN UP THE PASSING ATTACK:
The New England Patriots are not leaving quarterback Tom Brady back in the pocket to take a number of hits and leave him open to injury. At 41 years old, that only makes sense. However, that strategy last week was against the fearsome front of the Minnesota Vikings of Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Sheldon Richardson and Linval Joseph.
These Dolphins are not the pass-rushing beast of teams past which made life difficult for Brady. Miami still has 36 year old Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn on the edges, but the duo has just eight sacks combined through a dozen games. On the interior, there is no longer Ndamukong Suh, Randy Starks, Earl Mitchell and Jordan Phillips wreaking havoc.
Miami spent a first round draft pick on Charles Harris in 2017 and have received no production and no signs of a breakout by the Missouri defensive end. Harris is a smaller edge rusher and struggles against big tackles–this week the Patriots roll out two gigantic players in Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown. Miami also has Andre Branch eating up a big chunk of salary cap space for the one sack he has produced this year.
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The New England offensive line has not allowed a sack in the past two games and have allowed just 16 sacks in 12 games. In New England’s nine wins they have allowed just nine sacks. With Miami missing ball-hawking cornerback Xavien Howard this week, Brady should have time to push the ball downfield more than he did against Minnesota last week.
The Dolphins on defense are allowing opponents to get bang for their buck when passing the ball. Miami is 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per attempt as Miami allows 7.4 yards per pass attempt. Chew on this: the Dolphins have allowed the seventh fewest pass attempts in the league, but they are in the bottom third in passing yards allowed currently at 21st in the NFL having allowed 3,057 passing yards.
New England actually is well-equipped to push the ball downfield if necessary. Chris Hogan was the deep threat in 2016 and fellow wide receivers Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson have excellent straight-line speed to get behind the deep safety. While they no longer have great speed, Josh Gordon and tight end Rob Gronkowski have the size to use their bodies downfield to shield defenders from the ball.
Miami has a pair of veteran safeties in Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald who like to cheat-up and help out underneath and in the short passing game and run defense. Unfortunately, that leaves the unit vulnerable to big chunk plays. Impressive rookie safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is going to be forced into playing cornerback opposite Bobby McCain leaving opportunity for the Patriots to attack down the field.
That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must keep the momentum of the running game:
POWER UP THE SONY:
The Dolphins have not only been vulnerable to chunk plays in the passing game–it has been evident in their run defense as well. Miami is 30th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. They have allowed their opponents to pile up a staggering 1,729 yards on the ground for five yards per rushing attempt in 2018 through a dozen games.
For the Patriots, this should be a game where Sony Michel can flash his athleticism and break off a few big runs. Michel, when healthy, has been a much-needed boost of athleticism in the backfield that the Patriots have lacked since a young Stephen Ridley exploded on the scene in 2012.
In the past two games Michel has piled up 199 yards on 38 carries against the Jets and Vikings. Michel showed the ability to put the game away in the fourth quarter with a hard-charging style against one of the NFL’s best run defenses. He rushed six times for 31 yards on the final drive that helped run down almost four minutes of the clock and give the ball back to Minnesota with under a minute to play.
Against Miami in week four, Michel piled up 112 yards on 25 caries and a touchdown in his first real action as the primary back for the Patriots. The Patriots ground out 175 yards on the ground and the offensive line pushed the Dolphins front seven around consistently. Davon Godchaux and Akeem Spence are average defensive tackles who struggle to not get pushed around. Veterans Sylvester Williams and Ziggy Hood are well past their prime.
On the edge, the Dolphins still lean on Cameron Wake to set the edge. Robert Quinn has never been about stopping the run game and been full speed ahead towards the quarterback each and every play. In the middle of the defense Raekwon McMillan has been frustrating to watch as he is basically a rookie after missing all of his rookie year to injury.
Kiko Alonso makes a ton of tackles, but he is about speed not power. Getting an offensive lineman or fullback James Develin on him in the running game will neutralize Alonso who does not hold up once engaged. The best player at linebacker has been third-round draft pick Jerome Baker who is getting comfortable in his role and looking like a steal at his draft position.
New England would love to be able to go down in the Miami heat and tire out the defense with a powerful running game pushing around the Miami front seven and wearing them down. For that to happen, the Patriots will need to power up the Sony and bring the power and speed to southern Florida on Sunday.
If the offensive line and fullback James Develin can open holes for Sony Michel and the other running backs, the offense should be able to extend drives and keep the Miami offense on the sidelines while keeping the pass rush off quarterback Tom Brady.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01