A healthy three-game lead in the AFC East has all but assured the New England Patriots of a postseason berth for the fifth straight season, and 10th in the last 12 seasons, but Tom Brady’s crew still have eyes on the conference’s best record as they face the rival Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium.
Denver’s loss to San Diego on Thursday night has opened the door for New England to claim the AFC’s top seed and home field advantage throughout theh playoffs. The Patriots (10-3) also hold the tiebreaker over the Broncos after Week 12’s 34-31 overtime win.
New England’s captured seven straight wins over the Dolphins, with the last loss coming in Miami in 2009. New England has also won nine of the last 10 meetings, but that streak might be in jeopardy due to the season-ending ACL tear suffered by tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Even with Brady under center, New England’s offense sputtered to a 5-1 record against lesser defenses when Gronkowski missed the first six games of the season. The Patriots drop from second to 22nd in the league in points scored, from third to 19th in passing yards, and from fourth to 30th in red zone efficiency with the Pro Bowler Gronkowski out of the lineup.
Victorious in three of the last four games, the Dolphins (7-6) remains in the playoff hunt. A huge win over the Pats keeps them in line with Baltimore for the second Wild Card spot in the AFC, just ahead of San Diego.
Improved play from second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a defense allowing 16.8 points in the last four games have given Miami a shot at the playoffs for the first time in five years. Tannehill tied his season-high with three touchdown passes in last week’s 34-28 win over Pittsburgh, and the Dolphins are 7-3 when he completes a minimum of 60 percent his passes.
The running back duo of Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller has also rushed for a combined 100 yards in the three recent victories, and could make a huge impact against a New England defense ranked 31 st in the NFL against the run.
With Brady somewhat limited in the passing game, the Pats may also turn to their rushing attack and mix up various packages for backs Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Bloung, and Shane Vereen. Following an excellent 101-yard rushing performance in Week One, Vereen was forced to sit out until Week 11 with a broken wrist Vereen, but has since been a major threat as a pass catching back.
In five games Vereen’s total 40 receptions for 373 yards and one touchdown, including 12 catches for 153 yards against Cleveland’s staunch defense last week.
Miami corners Brent Grimes and Nolan Caroll have played a huge role in the secondary’s success, hauling in six of the squad’s 16 interceptions, and combining for 26 passes defended. The Dolphins are fifth in the NFL in interceptions and quarterbacks are averaging a 76.1 passer rating against them.
Caroll was limited in the first two days of practice this week, but fully participated on Friday according to the team’s official site.
New England’s third leading receiver Aaron Dobson could miss his third straight game due to a foot sprain, further depleting Brady’s number of capable targets. But Dobson did reportedly return to practice on Friday, according to MassLive.com.
Betting Odds: New England favored by 1.5 points
Over/Under: 45.5 points
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Live Online Stream Details: NFL Sunday Ticket
Prediction: Miami 24, New England 20