Patriots Need to Take Advantage of Soft Spots in Schedule to Position Themselves for Playoff Bye in Top-Heavy AFC

The Patriots have finally come down off their Thanksgiving feast at the Meadowlands and are ready to bite into some more division rivals. This time it would appear sushi is on the menu.

A trip to the bright and sunny skies down in Miami seems like it would be a welcome travel destination for Tom Brady and company, but a quick look at their record over the past decade in the Sunshine State tells us otherwise.

New England is just 14-33 all-time when playing in Miami, and even with all of Brady’s success, including eight AFC East crowns in the past 10 seasons, he boasts just a 5-5 record when visiting the Dolphins down south.

So, what does that mean for the Patriots come Sunday? A 38-24 rout in Miami last season could mean that the tides have finally turned — hopeless attempt at beach humor — or that the so-called “trap game” may be on the horizon.

A week without two of the Patriots’ best pass rushers, given Chandler Jones‘ injury and Jermaine Cunningham‘s suspension, could make things a bit tougher than expected. But with a chance to clinch the AFC East hanging in the balance, maybe New England can overcome their depth issues and skin the fins anyhow.

There’s plenty to be discussed about this game, and around the league, including the Patriots’ place among the AFC’s elite. So, let’s jump into the mailbag and see if we can answer some fan questions as we prepare for a sunny showdown in Miami.

With Cunningham being suspended, how big is the Chandler Jones ankle injury and who do you think will step up and contribute?
— Kris Kauffman, Westbrook, ME

Nice, Kris, might as well kick things off with the biggest question on the Patriots’ radar this weekend. Jones’ injury is still very much a question, although it sounds like he may be M.I.A. for for the trip to MIA. When he went down in the first quarter of the Colts game, it seemed that the injury wasn’t all that serious. But as the weeks have gone on, you begin to wonder just how severe the issue may be.

On top of that, Cunningham, who played a key role off the edge against both the Colts and Jets, is now out for the next four games. That is going to put even more pressure on an inexperienced group of backups along that defensive line. Trevor Scott and Justin Francis seem like prime candidates to fill the void in the meantime — which is something I wrote about and you can read more about here.

I say Houston, Baltimore, Denver and the Pats all end up at 13-3. What seed do you think we’re on pace for?
— @BrentSchwartzz, via Twitter

That’s a good prediction, given the state of the AFC right now and the remaining schedules for each team. I think the Texans have a realistic shot at 14-2, even with two games against Indy and a visit to New England left on their slate. So, my guess is they end up the No. 1 seed when all is said and done.

As for the rest, I’m a little weary about the Ravens. With visits to Washington and Cincinnati still in the cards as well as visits from the Broncos, Giants and Steelers, they’ve got the toughest road of the four. A 13-3 finish may be a stretch, 12-4 is more likely, but if Ray Lewis does return that would give them a huge boost.

Denver has a fairly easy run to the finish line, with Tampa Bay and Baltimore the only true tests remaining, but Peyton Manning does have them on a good track to close out the season on a hot streak. Luckily for New England, that tiebreaker from the win at Gillette earlier in the season could pay big dividends.

Finally, the Patriots should cruise through a home-and-home with the Dolphins as well as the anemic Jaguars. But with the Texans and 49ers visiting in a six-day span, I wouldn’t be surprised by at least one more loss on the year.

Once every team’s finished their schedule, I’d guess that Houston and Denver come away with the top two seeds and New England and Baltimore are left shaking their heads heading into wild card weekend. A tough reality for Patriots fans to face, but the most likely one given the final five weeks.

Mr. Hughes, it appears that a guy like Brian Brohm who stands at or about 6’6″, a natural pocket passer, and has been staying busy at improving his QB skill set, could be the right fit for the Chicago Bears. Brohm’s former teammate, Michael Bush, no doubt would be thrilled to see Brohm as the Bears’ interim QB. What are your thoughts Mr. Hughes? Thank you.
–Doug Bishop, Louisville, KY

Wow, did this question come out of left field. Gotta love the enthusiasm for a former Cardinal.

Brohm has all the physical tools you’d look for in a quarterback. He’s tall, has good mechanics and throws a very good deep ball. All of which made him an attractive choice coming out in 2008. He even got some No. 1 overall consideration and was likely a first-round lock if he came out a year earlier. But the talent and physical tools never really translated into the NFL.

With Jay Cutler back behind center in Chicago, I’d guess there’s really no place from Brohm anymore. But if I was a general manager looking for a solid backup, I’d at least extend a training camp invite. At this point in the season, though, I don’t see him getting any feelers from NFL teams.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Or want to be featured in our weekly NFL mailbag? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes  or drop it in the mailbag here.

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