The cardiac New England Patriots (10-3) were able to pull off another miraculous win last week. Down 26-14 to the Cleveland Browns with 2:00 to go, the Patriots were able to score a touchdown, recover an onside kick for the first time in 20 years, and score another touchdown via Tom Brady to Danny Amendola to seal the win. The win came at a price as tight end Rob Gronkowski left the game with a knee injury. He has been diagnosed with a torn ACL and MCL and will miss the rest of the season and maybe some of next season. For this team, it has truly been next man up. However, due to the Broncos' loss to the Chargers on Thursday night, if the Patriots win out, they will be the #1 seed in the AFC Playoffs. First up, New England can clinch the AFC East with a win over the Dolphins this weekend.
The Miami Dolphins (7-6) have faced adversity themselves this season. This was due to the internal conflict that took place in the locker room between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The two offensive linemen were at the epicenter of a locker room bullying scandal that has led Martin to leave the team and Incognito suspended indefinitely. That being said, Miami has responded well with back-to-back road wins against the Jets and the Steelers. The Dolphins and Patriots squared off back in October at Gillette Stadium. Miami led 17-3 at the half, but surrendered the game's final 24 points to New England in the 2nd half. With the Patriots' history of slow starts this year, can Miami play a succinct 60 minutes and get a huge win for their playoff chances?
Here are my three keys to this Sunday's game (1:00 ET, CBS) in Miami:
Tanning In The Sun: Looking at the Miami Dolphins, you have to start with the quarterback and that's second year signal-caller Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill hit a slide in the month of November, throwing for only four touchdowns. In December, he has become a different player on the road, throwing for five touchdowns to just two interceptions in two games. The Dolphins need to have a balanced attack in order to win this game. In the first meeting between these teams, the Patriots were able to get to Tannehill and force turnovers, whether it was interceptions or forced fumbles. Lamar Miller on the ground will have to help his quarterback out and its a good sign for them that he ran for 89 yards back in October (2nd highest total of the season). Tannehill has impressed with good performances in cold weather these last two weeks considering he was a mess last year at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots need to add to his 20 turnovers (14 INT's, 6 fumbles) in order to help give their offense a short field to work with.
A Grimy Secondary: Miami's defense was able to hold Tom Brady to just 116 yards in the first meeting back in Foxboro while also forcing Brady into an interception. The strength of the Dolphins is their defensive line that has sacked the quarterback 40 times, 19 of those coming from Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake. That pass rush could lead to turnovers considering the Patriots are banged up on the offensive line. Left tackle Nate Solder has a concussion while Marcus Cannon is just coming back from an ankle injury. Keep an eye on cornerback Brent Grimes. Grimes has four interceptions this year (tied for the team lead), The Dolphins win games when Grimes has an interception, along with his cornerback mate Dimitri Patterson. Grimes was one of the more productive free agent acquisitions by Miami's big spending front office during the offseason.
Hands Of Clay: The Dolphins haven't received much production from big money wide receiver Mike Wallace. However, a new weapon has emerged into the picture for Miami in tight end Charles Clay. Clay is tied for 5th in most targets for a tight end this season and is just 113 yards away from breaking the record for most yards by a Dolphin tight end in a single season. Ryan Tannehill has trusted him in the big moments in ball games. Last week, Clay had 7 catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers. Back in October, the tight end had just 37 yards against the Patriots. If New England can keep Clay in check, it could be the cause of sacks for Chandler Jones and the defensive line.
The Patriots have beaten the Dolphins seven straight times and 14 out of the last 19 games. The key component I have my eye on for this game is the weather. It has been cold in the Northeast, but it's going to be 86 degrees at kickoff. The Patriots offense has seen healthy doses of Shane Vereen, but they are going to need Stevan Ridley in the lineup if Vereen is going to be relied upon as a pass catcher. New England's problem has been the first half this season. In the last four games, they have just 10 points in the first half, but they are 3-1. Against a team like the Dolphins, I don't think the Patriots can get away with that this time. Even with home-field on the line, I think the Dolphins find a way to steal this one.