After a disastrous start to the season a year ago, meaningful December football will return to Miami this weekend as the Dolphins take on the AFC East leading New England Patriots. The 8-3 Patriots have yet to feel any pressure from their division rivals as they can already clinch a playoff spot with a win on Sunday while the 5-6 Dolphins will look to build off their comeback victory over Seattle and continue their climb back into the AFC playoff picture.
Following a shaky start to the season, New England has strung together one dominating performance after another on route to a five game winning streak which they will take into Sun Life Stadium. In order for the Dolphins to overcome this offensive powerhouse, there are several things that must go right for them, starting with play similar to that of the fourth quarter against the Seahawks.
The element of this year's version of the Patriots that make them unique to those in years past is a rejuvinated run game. Stevan Ridley has taken the starting running back role and never looked back, rushing for 939 yards and 8 touchdowns. The recent emergence of Shane Vereen out of the backfield has given the Patriots the luxury of having a top 10 running back combination in the entire league and adding a second dimension to go along with a potent passing game. Luckily for the Dolphins, what they do best is stopping the run and it was evident last week when they held Marshawn Lynch to only 46 yards on 19 carriers in a career year thus far. Look for the Dolphins to do the same against Ridley and Vereen, ultimately taking one half of their attack out of the equation. If Miami was to soley focus on the passing game, which will be a monumental challenge to shut down, and underestimate the run, they will be in store for a rather lenghty afternoon.
With the Patriots threat on the ground eliminated, the Dolphins must look to minimize Tom Brady's success through the air. Miami's mediocre secondary can't be relied on with Brady at the helm and a variety of weapons at his diposal so the Dolphins front seven must ensure that he does not find a rhythm by continually putting pressure on him. The only way to stop a quarterback as consistent as Brady has been over the past decade is to get him on the turf as often as possible and limit the time he has to operate in the pocket. The performance of the secondary will be directly linked to the pass rush, it is up to the front seven to determine how this game will be played; Brady will either struggle against the rush or shred the Dolphins defense.
The Patriots are a tall order for any team so it doesn't help your chances of winning by providing New England with additional opportunities. Tannehill and the Dolphins did a solid job of protecting the football against Seattle and as the game progressed they were able to move down the field and capitalize with touchdowns in the red zone. The Miami offense will have to turn in the same, if not a better performance to keep up with New England and keep Brady on the sidelines. Turnovers have plagued Miami this season and their 27th ranked turnover margin has surely cost them a few victories. Although it may be a lot to ask from a rookie with minimal passing options, Tannehill must make the right decisions and avoid foring throws to keep the 'Phins in a position to win.
In order for the Dolphins to play the game at their own tempo and control the time of possesion, they will need to execute at a high level on offense and have success running the ball. Against a stingy Seahawks defense, Reggie Bush turned in his best performance of the season since week 3, rushing for 87 yards including a 22 yard touchdown. That trend must continue if the Dolphins are to open up the field for Tannehill to take some shots and make plays.
While the odds are stacked up in the Patriots favour, the Dolphins are in prime position to pull off a stunning upset however it will take near perfect football in all three phases of the game to do so. The parity in the NFL has been evident in the first twelve weeks of play and the phrase "Any Given Sunday" has proven to be true on many occasions. There's no reason to believe that it won't carry over for at least another week.