The New England Patriots head into their final regular season game of 2012 on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots struggled last weekend against the Jaguars on the offensive side of the football, but they were able to survive thanks to a late Patrick Chung interception. Now, the Pats will have many options with the game at 4:25 PM Sunday to see where they stand in the AFC Playoff picture.
To run through the scenarios real quick:
PATRIOTS WIN – they secure no. 3 seed
PATRIOTS WIN + TEXANS Loss – Pats get no. 2 seed and a 1st round bye
PATRIOTS WIN + TEXANS LOSS + BRONCOS LOSS – PATS get Home Field
PATRIOTS LOSS + RAVENS WIN – PATRIOTS get no. 4 seed
For Miami, this is a chance for them to finish a season at 8-8 in which all the prognosticators besides yours truly picked them to finish dead last. Plus, they played the Patriots tough in Miami a week ago losing 23-16. However, in that game, Miami got to Brady repeatedly and slowed down the passing attack. This is where the possible return of tight end Rob Gronkowski will be a huge help even if it is a limited role. Even if the bye is not up for grabs, I would still like the Pats to try to gather up any momentum they can going into the Wild Card game by fixing some of the cogs the Pats’ machine has had the last two games.
Here are my keys to the regular season finale:
1. Ridley Me This: One of the nice surprises for the Patriots this year has been the emergence of Stevan Ridley as the team’s number one running back. He has picked up right where the Law Firm left off. However, the one edge that Law Firm has on Ridley is that he never fumbled the football. Coming into the year, the question that was surrounding the 2nd year RB out of LSU was his fumble issues. This year, the problem has magnified with four fumbles this season, including two fumbles in the last three games. Last week, against the Jaguars, Ridley dropped a pass which led to one of Brady’s two interceptions. This game could go a long way in his postseason confidence, especially since Ridley struggled against the Dolphins in the first matchup (19 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown). He needs valuable reps whether the bye is up for grabs or not to carry him into January.
2. Cutting Out Cunningham?: All the talk in Foxboro this week is surrounding the potential return of Rob Gronkowski. However, the Patriots are getting a defensive player back in linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. Cunningham returns after a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. The question is how much time will the former Florida Gator receive in this one? He had bad timing with his suspension because in the game prior to the disciplinary action, Cunningham had six tackles on Thanksgiving night against the Jets. Over these past few games, a new player has emerged in the Patriots’ defensive fray. Coach Belichick has given a lot of praise to rookie defensive lineman Justin Francis. Francis’ shining game came against the 49ers where he had five tackles. Keep an eye especially on the Patriots’ front seven rotations this week!
3. Praying For Some Protection: During the first two months of the season, everyone was talking about the solid job the Pats’ offensive line was doing in pass protection. Over the last four games, fans have been wondering what exactly the problem is. During this stretch, the Pats have given up eleven sacks. Some of these reasons are injuries to Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer as well as ineffective play from players like Dan Connolly. If the Pats can’t fix this problem soon, they will have a tough time finding their way back to New Orleans. They will get a mix of some of that playoff pressure from Cameron Wake. Wake has 15 sacks this year, including 1.5 sacks in the first matchup with the Patriots. Wake will be matched up against Sebastian Vollmer, who has been dealing with his fair share of injuries over the last month. The question is can Miami duplicate that pressure that they did against the Pats last month in a much colder environment?
To clarify my prediction, I do think the Patriots will have the first round bye come Sunday night. I think the Colts will play their starters against the Texans and will be emotionally charged for this one with the return of head coach Chuck Pagano. I still question whether or not the Texans can win the big game, especially after they had a home clunker against the Minnesota Vikings last week. As for the game in Foxboro, the Patriots will look to come out fast at home in an environment that is more suitable for them. I expect Reggie Bush to get his fair share of yards for the Dolphins, but Ryan Tannehill’s tendency to turn the ball over moreso on the road is what will cost the Dolphins here. Plus, I think the Pats will get a nice Gronk spike in this one as well.
PATRIOTS 28 DOLPHINS 20