The New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins still have something to play for Sunday in their Week 17 matchup. A Patriots win will clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, while a Dolphins win and Kansas City Chiefs loss would give them the No. 5 seed.
Because playoff seeding still is on the line, it’s unlikely either team will rest starters, so get ready for a competitive matchup. The Dolphins will be without their starting quarterback, however. Ryan Tannehill has been ruled out with a knee injury, so Matt Moore will make his third consecutive start.
The Patriots ruled out wide receiver Danny Amendola (high ankle sprain) and cornerback Cyrus Jones (knee). Rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell is doubtful after he didn’t participate in practice this week.
Here are the Patriots’ keys to victory.
PREVENT BIG PLAYS
The Dolphins have one of the best big-play offenses in the NFL. They rank third in passing plays of over 40 yards and first in rushing plays of over 40 yards. Dolphins second-year pro Jay Ajayi leads NFL running backs with four carries of more than 40 yards.
The Patriots are equally good at stopping big plays, however, so something has to give. They’re tied for second at preventing 40-yard-plus passing plays and they’re fifth in preventing rushing plays of over 40 yards.
The Patriots’ secondary, and their tackling ability, will be key in stopping game-changing plays. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon are highly dependable at free safety, and safety Patrick Chung and cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler are sure tacklers.
KEEP THE BALL MOVING ON THIRD DOWN
The Dolphins are the best team in the NFL at preventing third-down conversions, with opposing teams picking up a first down just 34.65 percent of the time. The Patriots’ offense is fourth in third-down conversions at 45.12 percent, so once again, something has to give.
The Dolphins likely will be without three-quarters of their starting secondary. Starting safeties Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus are on injured reserve, and cornerback Byron Maxwell is doubtful with an ankle injury. That obviously could affect their third-down pass defense.
The Patriots might have to rely heavily upon Julian Edelman and running backs Dion Lewis and James White on third down. It’s unlikely Mitchell will play, so Michael Floyd will be counted on as a third wideout.
RELY ON THE RUN
This idea might give Patriots fans some negative flashbacks to last season’s loss to the Dolphins, when New England ran the ball 27 times for 70 yards and passed just 25 times.
But as good as the Dolphins are at creating big plays and preventing third-down conversions, they’re as bad against the run. They rank 30th in rushing yards allowed per game with 141.8 and 31st in rushing yards per attempt per game at 4.9.
The Patriots rank eighth with 116.8 rushing yards per game but they’re averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. They’re averaging just 3.3 yards per carry over their last three games, so this could be a good opportunity to turn around their rushing attack that has been relied upon heavily to close out games by killing the clock.
LeGarrette Blount is having a monster season with 285 carries for 1,110 yards with 17 touchdowns. Dion Lewis is averaging 4.4 yards per carry since returning from multiple knee surgeries.
Thumbnail photo via Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports Images
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