There is a lot at stake this Sunday in Miami, as the New England Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a win, and the Miami Dolphins have to get this win, if they wish to keep their slim playoff chances alive. The Patriots are a banged up bunch, especially after losing one of the best players in football last week, as Rob Gronkowski went down with a season ending knee injury. This will definitely hamper the Patriots ability to move the ball on offense, but I guarantee Tom Brady and company will have made adjustments, and could possibly surprise the rest of the NFL with the productivity of their post-Gronk offense.
Here are four players to watch tomorrow afternoon.
1. Shane Vereen
With Gronk out of the picture, it is time for Vereen to really flex his muscles in a Patriots offense that will now revolve around him. He is a great pass catcher out of the backfield, and whenever he gets split out wide against a linebacker, Brady is looking at him every single time. Obviously he is not the matchup nightmare that Gronkowski is, but he provides New England with another mismatch to go to, and he will have to produce as the regular season ends, and the playoffs begin.
2. Cameron Wake
Anytime you play the Dolphins, one of the biggest priorities on offense is finding where Wake is, and then go about trying to keep him off your quarterback. He is one of the best edge rushers this league has to offer, and with all three of the Patriots offensive tackles banged up, he may find himself in the backfield a lot this week. Nate Solder, Will Svitek, and possibly Marcus Cannon will all be faced with keeping Wake in front of them tomorrow, and it will extremely important for them to contain him, especially now that New England has to play without Rob Gronkowski on offense.
3. Kyle Arrington/Aqib Talib/Alfonzo Dennard
When all three of these guys are healthy, the Patriots back end is actually quite tough to throw against. Dennard and Talib are great cover guys on the outside, and while Arrington has had his struggles, he plays very well when he moves to the slot. However last time these two teams played, Arrington found himself matched up on Mike Wallace for the majority of the contest, and he did a terrific job at shutting him down. I don’t know if Bill Belichick will elect to put Arrington on Wallace again, but whoever gets the assignment of covering number 11 will have to do a good job limiting the damage he does downfield. When Wallace plays well, and gets deep on a defense, the entire Dolphins offense plays well, which would be bad news for a New England defense that is not playing their best football right now.
4. Charles Clay
The 2013 Patriots have had a history with tight ends having big games against them (Tony Gonzalez, Jordan Cameron, Greg Olsen) and while Charles Clay may not be as “flashy” as those guys, he certainly can be productive for Miami. Back in week eight, Clay caught five balls for 37 yards. Those aren’t great numbers, but allowing stuff like that opens up things in the running game, and on the outside for Wallace and company. Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes both struggle in pass coverage, which is why the Pats have gone with Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher on passing downs lately. I fully expect them to do this again tomorrow, because they cannot afford to let Clay have a big day, as that would make stopping the Dolphins offense very hard to do.