For one, there’s no telling how willing the Dolphins will be to get on the plane and play in frigid conditions, especially with the playoffs out of reach and when there’s so much uncertainty surrounding the fate of the coaching staff and front office. And after back-to-back home losses against the Bills and Lions, the Dolphins have lost any chance to establish momentum for 2011.
Then there’s the Patriots, who will likely play a good chunk of their starters, but there’s no telling if they’ll play for one series or three and a half quarters. If you’re looking for a thorough breakdown, check out our Week 4 scouting report, but remember a few things have changed since then.
For this week, let’s try something a little different and touch on the important matchups that could decide the outcome Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
1. Contain wide receiver Brandon Marshall
The Patriots held Marshall to five catches for 50 yards in Week 4, and most of his damage came in garbage time. New England’s defense mixed up the game plan on Marshall, and the multitude of looks constituted a turning point in the season, showcasing the trust Bill Belichick had in his defense, and the players’ ability to execute a more complex scheme.
2. Tackle wide receiver Davone Bess
The slot receiver was outstanding in their first meeting, taking advantage of his matchups to the tune of eight receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown. If the Patriots roll coverages at Marshall, Bess will be open a whole lot. They just have to decide which player is worth shutting down first, and if that means Bess will get the catches, they’ve got to tackle the shifty skill player as soon as he gets the ball.
3. Contain running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown
They combined for 19 runs for 83 yards in Week 4, and both are having forgettable seasons by their standards. If Williams and Brown can’t get through containment, the Pats will put the onus on quarterback Chad Henne, who hasn’t taken the step forward that many expected this season and has looked downright bad at other times.
4. Neutralize outside linebacker Cameron Wake
Once a situational pass rusher, Wake has emerged into a really good player for the Dolphins, and he torched the Patriots’ line in Week 4. Wake has a league-high 14 sacks this season, and speed rushers have given right tackle Sebastian Vollmer big problems in 2010. The Patriots’ top priority Sunday will be keeping Tom Brady safe, happy and healthy, and that starts with keeping Wake out of the pocket.
5. Utilize tight end Rob Gronkowski
The Dolphins have a pretty balanced defense, which is ranked third in total yardage, seventh in passing yards, sixth in rushing yards and ninth in points. They can be attacked over the middle, though, and Gronkowski could come in handy in that regard.
6. Work the ground game
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is 72 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark. It’s likely the Patriots would lean on him in this game anyway, but the desire to get him to that milestone could cause him to get even more carries. When quarterback Brian Hoyer inevitably takes over for Brady, the importance of the ground game will heighten again.
7. Special teams
Dolphins special teams coach John Bonamego was fired after Miami’s meltdown in Week 4, when the Patriots returned a kickoff for a touchdown, blocked a punt that led to a score and blocked a field goal that got returned for a touchdown. So yeah, that could come into play again.