The New England Patriots are set to take on the Miami Dolphins on the road on Sunday and with a win, the Patriots will once again be AFC East champions. While the Patriots come in sporting a 10-3 record, currently in the driver’s seat for the top playoff seed in the AFC, as has been the persistent trend throughout the 2013 season, there are more questions than answers with this Patriots team. After another thrilling come-from-behind victory, this one against the Cleveland Browns at home, the Patriots are trying to improve their consistency both early in football games and on the road. All three New England losses have come on the road this season, making the team’s pursuit of the AFC’s top seed, and the home field advantage that comes with it, all that more important. But what the Patriots will be really trying to prove on Sunday is that they can be effective on offense without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was placed on season ending injured reserve earlier this week. As we get ready for this big AFC East showdown between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins, let’s take a look at the key questions that will determine the outcome of the game.
How will the Patriots adapt to life without Rob Gronkowski?
Let’s not waste any time. The biggest question facing the Patriots is can they move ball consistently without Gronkowski and, more specifically, can they be succesful in the red zone without Gronk? We don’t need to repeat the differentials in offensive production when Gronkowski is on the field and when he’s not – they’ve practically been tattooed to every sport’s fans eyes over the past week. It’s simple: the Patriots have not been as effective without Gronkowski and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Gronk is a rare talent and a matchup nightmare for even the most talented defenses. He masks a lot of imperfections in the passing game and when he’s not available those imperfections are more likely to come to light.
Thankfully for Tom Brady and the New England offense, this is not unchartered territory. However, we shouldn’t be so fast to compare the current iteration of the Patriots offense with the early season version. In the first few weeks of the season, the Patriots were missing not just Gronkowski, but also Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola and were relying on the untested rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Now, Thompkins and Dobson are actually the ones hobbled by injuries. On Sunday, Brady will be looking to rely on three veterans to fill the void that Gronkowski left, and perhaps one rookie. We’ve already seen how important Shane Vereen is to this offense so look for him to play a featured role against the Dolphins, just as he did against Cleveland. Brady will also rely on his two shifty slot receivers in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who we’re likely to see lineup all over the offensive formation as the Patriots try and get more creative with the personnel they have. Another possibility is that the Patriots try to get young receiver Josh Boyce more into the mix in the passing game. While we shouldn’t anticipate Boyce having double digit targets at this point, it’s likely that he sees more action on Sunday given that with Gronkowski out, Miami’s defense will be trying to contain both Vereen and Edelman. That could be an opportunity for the young Boyce to make an impact.
Can the Patriots better protect their hall of fame quarterback?
The Patriots offensive line has struggled this season with inconsistency and injuries. Left tackle Nate Solder is banged up and so is right tackle Marcus Cannon (who is already stepping in for the injured Sebastian Vollmer). It’s questionable whether both will play on Sunday and if they can’t go the Patriots will be extremely thin at the most important positions on their offense outside of quarterback. Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will have to do better with whatever personnel the Patriots do have on the field on Sunday. If this team wants secure its 10th AFC East title in 11 years and move closer toward a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, they will have to be more consistent in pass protection. If they can give Brady more time, this offense will be very productive even without their all pro tight end.
Will Stevan Ridley re-emerge in week 14 as the Patriots featured running back?
A natural reaction to losing your most productive pass catcher would be to rely more on the running game, right? That is certainly one of the questions that Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels are contemplating right now. After his week 12 healthy inactive, the Patriots worked to get Stevan Ridley back involved in the offense against the Browns. His use was infrequent, however, as he carried the ball only 8 times. Despite that limited action, Ridley was productive for the Patriots against Cleveland averaging 4.4 yards per carry. It’s a near certainty that the Patriots will try their best to get some consistent production out of the running game on Sunday, but they know that their best running back also happens to be their most fumble prone. Regardless, expect the Patriots to get Ridley more carries in this one. If he’s able to take advantage of his opportunities, it would be one more small step toward regaining his status as a featured running back.
How can the Patriots solve their defensive woes?
It’s not that difficult to diagnose the Patriots problems on defense. It starts up front where New England is absolutely ravaged with injuries. With Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo all on injured reserve, the Patriots have been relying on a rotation of youth that has shown flashes of effectiveness but that more often has failed to consistently stop the run and create the pressure necessary to keep NFL quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. As a result, the Patriots defense is back to its old ways, giving up huge chunks of yardage to mediocre offensive personnel. Anytime a Jason Campbell led offense passes for nearly 400 yards you’re clearly doing something wrong (regardless of the freak show that is Josh Gordon). There’s no magic cure to this one, either. The Patriots will have to figure out how to get more production out of the personnel they have on their roster. If defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick can’t figure out how to turn the performance of the front seven around, it will be the achilles heal that eventually leads to the Patriots demise.
The Patriots have faced questions on both sides of the ball all season and yet, somehow, they find themselves with a chance to take over the top seed in the AFC and control their own destiny. Despite his well chronicled struggles early in the season, quarterback Tom Brady keeps finding improbable ways to win. Miami is at home and needs this win to keep their playoff hopes alive, so expect their best performance on Sunday. But the Patriots are playing with a chip on their shoulders as they look to prove the critics wrong who claim the success of the team is directly tied to the health of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Look for Tom Brady to spread the ball around to a long list of receivers and for Stevan Ridley to show some explosiveness in the red zone. Miami will play spirited football, but the Patriots will win another close one.
Patriots 31 – Dolphins 24