After a long season with a number of challenges, the regular season finale is finally here. And despite the negative perception of the Patriots among the public, Bill Belichick and company will finish at worst 12-4 giving them nine seasons of at least 12 wins in this decade, and last season’s 11-5 mark being the only miss. That total amounted to an impressive 113 wins going into this year with no other NFL team over 100 wins in that time. If this year is included the Patriots are at 125 wins thus far with the Steelers at 102 wins, the Packers at 101, and the Seahawks at 100 wins in that period. This doesn’t include playoff wins either.
Speaking of playoffs, the Patriots will have been in the playoffs every single season two more seasons than the next closest teams, the Packers and Seahawks, who have eight playoff appearances. Even more absurd though, is that the Patriots are the only team with more than one Super Bowl win (they have three) and have been in five! That means for everyone doing the math at home the Patriots have been in half the Super Bowls of the decade. Those five appearances are as many as the Saints, Chiefs, Packers, Seahawks, and Ravens combined.
Such success doesn’t last forever though, and the end is far closer than the beginning, so enjoy this playoff run and remember, never count out New England. They have been there before.
Ideally this week would not have had an impact on the seeding for the Pats and they could rest their players, but that is not the case. This week they are playing for a first-round bye and will be either the second or third seed. If the Chiefs lose, the Patriots will be the second seed regardless of what happens in their game. Unfortunately, both teams play at 1pm so neither will get the benefit of knowing the outcome of the other game and both will have to play their starters. If the Patriots win, the Chiefs outcome also doesn’t matter. The only way the Chiefs get the first-round bye is if the Pats lose and they win. The first-round bye is important, but also important is that a potential playoff game with the Chiefs, Texans, or Bills (one of the three will be their first-round opponent) will be at Gillette rather than on the road.
One thing this game will be good for is another week to keep the New England offense on track and continue their progress from last week. The Dolphins currently ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing defense and 28th in passing defense, giving Josh McDaniels a lot of options to attack the Fins. Because the Patriots need to win for a first-round bye, there is no doubt Julian Edelman will play, but don’t be surprised if they don’t give him a full workload as they try to manage his injuries, but also try to get others involved more. Mohammed Sanu, N’Keal Harry, and Jakobi Meyers are all in for an increased workload as Philip Dorsett seems to have been bumped to the bottom of the depth chart.
One matchup that will be fun to see for the game Sunday is the battle between emerging stud DeVante Parker at receiver and likely Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has been otherworldly the whole year and has earned praise consistently for his skill, athleticism, and relentless film studying that allows him to diagnose plays and routes early, giving him the chance to break on the ball. Gilmore has two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns this year.
On the other side of the likely battle is the 6’3’’ Parker who has had over 70 yards in five of the last six games, including three games with over 100 yards receiving and two with more than one touchdown. Parker is a beast on jump balls and has speed to stretch the field. Look for Fitzpatrick to take shots with him if he gets single coverage even if it is against Gilmore.
The whole Patriot defense gets a lot of praise for their effort on the year and rightfully so as they have been the best defense statistically for the entire season. However, one thing people should realize is just how special the Pats’ secondary has been and how much talent there is in the back end. The Patriots have four legitimate number one corners, along with a top free safety in the game since he moved to safety years ago. Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Stephon Gilmore, and Jason McCourty all have versatility, skill, selflessness, intelligence, and athleticism to succeed anywhere. Throw in Devin McCourty, as a top free safety and then Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon as solid players and this is maybe the most talented defensive grouping New England has had in a long time. One that will surely not come around again for a long time once they are broken up, so enjoy the ride while it lasts. (All of the corners are signed through next season so barring trades, retirements, or releases they will return).
Prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 17
The New England defense will need to be on their game because if they don’t come ready Brian Flores and the Dolphins will come and take it to them in Gillette. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a definite wild card, but he has shown the last few weeks he can put up big numbers and sling the ball around. However, the Patriots get another solid performance on the ground by Sony Michel and Tom Brady likely will look to try to get on the same page with Mohammed Sanu. They also will likely try to keep N’Keal Harry involved as they look to him for a heavier workload going into the playoffs. Another 13-win season for the Belichick and Brady duo.
-David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani