Sep 7, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91) hits New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the second half at Sun Life Stadium. Miami won 33-20. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots will attempt to lock-up another AFC East title on Sunday at Gillette Stadium against the Miami Dolphins. New England is playing Miami for the 99th time (including playoffs) in the history of the franchises as they attempt to extend their home winning streak against AFC East teams to sixteen consecutive games. However, the Patriots have lost two consecutive games to the Dolphins–but both were in Miami. Last year the Patriots dropped a late season match-up to the Dolphins that cost them home field advantage in the playoffs when they fell 24-20 on 12/15/2013. In week one of the season they blew a ten point halftime lead to lose 33-20 as they wilted in the 90 degree heat at SunLife Stadium.
Sep 7, 2014; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno (28) runs against the New England Patriots defense during the second half at Sun Life Stadium. The Dolphins won 33-20. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The Dolphins have been playing the injury card as an explanation for their recent struggles as they have lost three of their last five games. The Dolphins have been without two key contributors since early in the season as running back Knowshon Moreno and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe have been on injured reserve. In recent weeks the Dolphins have lost starting left tackle Branden Albert and starting strong safety Louis Delmas. Of course, New England lost both starting linebacker and starting running back Stevan Ridley to injury. Add in second-year wide receiver Aaron Dobson and first round draft pick defensive tackle Dominique Easley out injured and there is little sympathy from the Patriots.
Going into the game, both team have key players suffering injuries whose availability could impact the game. While Easley is already out, the Dolphins have already ruled out seldom used guard Nate Garner and backup rookie free agent defensive tackle Anthony Johnson (ankle). For Miami, four key linebackers are game-time decisions as Jonathan Freeny (hamstring), Jelani Jenkins (foot), and Koa Misi (hamstring & knee) are all doubtful while Chris McCain (ankle) is questionable. The only healthy linebackers for the Dolphins are Philip Wheeler and Jason Trusnik.
Dec 7, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs past San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Kavell Conner (53) and San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Donald Butler (56) during third quarter action at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
It is no coincidence that the injuries to the linebackers have aligned with the stout Miami defense going from allowing more than 125 yards rushing just twice in ten games to allowing 201, 277, and 183 yards on the ground. Jenkins and Misi are the two best linebackers on the roster and if they are unable to go after suffering injuries last week it could be a huge loss. No only do they contribute in the run defense, but the duo play a big role in covering running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Covering Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen is difficult enough on a regular week, but with the two top linebackers less than 100% it could be a tough week for the Dolphins.
Miami also has injury issues in the secondary. Strong safety Louis Delmas has been an excellent fit in Miami since coming over from Detroit and was a key cog in week one. With Delmas out for the year, slot cornerback Jimmy Wilson has to slide to his place. With Cortland Finnegan less than 100% if he even plays and having been out since his injury in week ten against the Lions, the Dolphins leaned on 2013 second-round draft pick Jamar Taylor who still appeared not ready for primetime. Taylor injured his shoulder and is questionable to play as well after missing the past two games. Miami had to sign journeyman R.J. Stanford to step in and contribute immediately and he struggled.
Dec 7, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell (19) is defended by San Diego Chargers cornerback Steve Williams (23) after making a catch during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
New England has a number of key contributors listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Starting guard Dan Connolly is questionable again with an ankle injury but he played last week. Backup tackle Cameron Fleming–who contributes as the tackle-eligible extra blocker in the running game when healthy is questionable with an ankle injury as well although he has out since week eleven. Wide receivers Brandon LaFell (shoulder) and Julian Edelman (thigh) are questionable but both played and contributed last week. Also on offense running back Shane Vereen is questionable with an ankle injury.
On defense the big question marks are starting inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive end/outside linebackers Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Jones–the team’s best pass rusher–has been out since week seven against the Jets with a hip injury. Ninkovich is a recent addition to the injury list despite playing all the defensive snaps in the past five weeks. Jones would be a big addition to the pass rush if healthy enough to play, but a hampered or inactive Ninkovich could be a big loss to the defense trying to contain Miami running back Lamar Miller. New England survived last week without Hightower, but he is still likely to miss the game and put additional pressure on linebacker Jamie Collins again.
Dec 7, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Akeem Ayers (55) is congratulated by strong safety Duron Harmon (30) and /n3232/ after intercepting a pass from San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (far left, background) during the third quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots defense had a strong game despite the loss of Hightower last week. New additions at linebacker Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas came up big last week in San Diego along with second-year linebacker Collins. Ayers and Casillas played almost the entire game and both were strong against the run, rushing the quarterback, and dropping into coverage. The trio will be called upon again to help contain running back Lamar Miller who has been fantastic in 2014 with a 4.8 yards per rush average and on pace for 1,000 yards on the ground this season along with 32 receptions in 13 games.
What New England has that has helped with the run defense is veteran Vince Wilfork in the middle with a solid cast. While Chris Jones is best at providing an interior pass rush, he is much better at containing opposing running backs than he was as a rookie. The return to health of Sealver Siliga is a huge boost as last year Siliga was quietly one of the better run defenders in the last quarter of 2013. Siliga-along with veteran Alan Branch–made an immediate impact in San Diego when inserted into the game as they played a major role in slowing Ryan Mathews after his strong start on the first drive.
The Patriots defense is playing much better than it had in week one when Ninkovich oddly played just half the defensive snaps and Jones was playing inside instead of on the edge. The Patriots had no Casillas or Ayers at linebacker, and cornerback Darrelle Revis did not have starting cornerback Brandon Bolden lined up opposite him. Since week one safety Patrick Chung has improved dramatically as his role has evolved and he contributes to this top-notch secondary.
On offense, the Patriots have integrated wide receiver Brandon LaFell into a weapon on offense since a slow start to the season. LeGarrette Blount is back at running back and is the hammer on offense that the team had missed. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright have improved dramatically since week one and are legitimate weapons on offense, particularly in the red zone. In week one, the Patriots had Kenbrell Thompkins (released), Michael Hoomanawanui (third-string tight end), Marcus Cannon (back-up tackle), and Jordan Devey (practice squad) on the field for the first snap of the season against Miami. Expect the Miami defense to see a different, and more effective, Patriots offense in week fifteen.
Dec 7, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; New England Patriots fans Linda Griffith (left), Bill Cunningham (center) and Lisa Snell pose for a picture before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
The Patriots took a step forward on defense last week against the Chargers and a step backwards on offense. Unlike in week one against the Dolphins and in previous seasons, the Patriots were able to win a game with the offense struggling and letting the defense carry the day. From Patriots.com on the challenge faced by the defense:
"In their last five games, the Patriots have faced Denver’s Peyton Manning, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and San Diego’s Philip Rivers and the defense has held those teams to an average of 16.6 points per game (San Diego scored one touchdown on a fumble return)."
This week, a struggling Dolphins team with issues on defense stopping the run, having healthy linebackers and secondary to face one of the top offenses in the NFL. On offense, the Dolphins have struggled to score topping 24 points just once in the past five games. Now they have to face a defense in New England which has been on a fantastic run against some of the best offenses in the league.
Despite the stats and the facts, the Dolphins always seem to bring something extra to face the Patriots. The game may be closer than expected, but expect the Patriots to take care of business at home as they remain focused on the top spot in the AFC.