FOXBORO, Mass. — In one of the more surprising developments of this NFL season, the New England Patriots sit at 1-2 entering Sunday’s Week 4 matchup with the rival Miami Dolphins.
In another, the Dolphins are 3-0, sitting atop a division they have not won since 2008.
How did these AFC East rivals get here? The Patriots dropped back-to-back games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions thanks to minimal production from their wide receivers, a lack of speed at linebacker, an inconsistent running game and a leaky run defense.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, relied on an improved Ryan Tannehill — now back under center after missing last season with a torn ACL — and big plays on both sides of the ball to notch wins over the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and Oakland Raiders. One of just three remaining undefeated teams, Miami has scored four 50-plus-yard touchdowns, all of which came in the fourth quarter.
“They attack you at all different points horizontally and vertically,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Friday. “So if you’re deep, you’ve got to be deep. If you’re outside, you’ve got to be outside. If you’re inside, you’ve got to be inside. As soon as you put too many players in one spot, they go somewhere else. That’s where those 50-, 60-, 80-yarders come from. Discipline, tackling, leverage — those are all critical.”
Let’s take a closer look at this matchup:
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Location: Gillette Stadium
The Patriots currently are pegged as 7-point favorites over the Dolphins, who haven’t won in Foxboro since 2008.
More than one-fifth of New England’s roster is dealing with some sort of injury, as 11 Patriots players are listed as questionable for this game:
OT Marcus Cannon (calf)
S Patrick Chung (concussion)
CB Keion Crossen (hamstring)
S Nate Ebner (hip)
DE Trey Flowers (concussion)
WR Josh Gordon (hamstring)
DE Geneo Grissom (ankle)
TE Rob Gronkowski (ankle)
TE Jacob Hollister (chest)
LB Brandon King (foot)
CB Eric Rowe (groin)
Particularly notable names on that list include Gronkowski, the Patriots’ All-Pro tight end and No. 1 receiving threat, and Gordon, who could make his Patriots debut after coming over from the Cleveland Browns early last week.
Chung and Flowers, defensive starters who missed last Sunday’s game with concussions, appear on track to return based on their practice participation this week, though their status remains uncertain.
The Dolphins have ruled out top tight end A.J. Derby, defensive end Andre Branch and linebacker Chase Allen and listed five players as questionable, including wide receiver DeVante Parker and defensive end Cameron Wake. Miami also is without defensive end William Hayes, who tore his ACL last Sunday while trying to avoid a roughing the passer penalty.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Josh Gordon, Patriots wide receiver
Will we see Gordon suit up in a Patriots uniform for the first time Sunday? He’s garnered positive reviews from head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and multiple teammates for the work he’s put in on the practice field and in the meeting rooms. A 2013 All-Pro before a series of suspensions derailed his career, Gordon would provide a boost to a Patriots receiving corps that’s struggled this season.
Sony Michel, Patriots running back
Michel, who endured some growing pains in his first two NFL outings, now is the Patriots’ unquestioned top back after Rex Burkhead landed on injured reserve this week. New England’s offense has been highly predictable when the first-round draft pick is on the field thus far, as he’s carried the ball on two-thirds of his offensive snaps (24 of 36) and been targeted on five others. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots divide snaps and touches between Michel, James White and newcomer Kenjon Barner. Miami’s run defense has been stout this season, ranking third in the league in yards allowed per carry.
John Simon, Patriots defensive end
The Patriots signed Simon this week after placing rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley on IR. He has experience in a Patriots-style defense from his time with the Houston Texans and was a solid pass rusher/edge setter for the Indianapolis Colts last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Simon’s motor should endear him to Patriots fans, and his presence should help a unit that’s looked suspect during Flowers’ absence.
Kenyan Drake, Dolphins running back
Drake has posted modest rushing numbers this season (30 carries, 104 yards, one touchdown) while splitting time with veteran Frank Gore, but he gashed the Patriots last season, carrying the ball 25 times for 114 yards in a 27-20 Dolphins win. The Patriots have had serious issues stopping the run, ranking 31st in yards allowed per game and 25th in yards allowed per carry.
Jakeem Grant, Dolphins wide receiver
The Dolphins have several playmakers in their deep and talented receiving corps, and Grant is one of the most intriguing. One of the smallest players in the NFL at just 5-foot-7, 169 pounds, he already has a 52-yard touchdown pass (from fellow wideout Albert Wilson on a trick play) and a 102-yard kick-return touchdown to his credit this season. Grant also caught a touchdown pass over Malcolm Butler in last year’s Patriots loss in Miami. Keep an eye out for Danny Amendola, too, as the ex-Patriots slot receiver leads Miami in catches this season with 11 on 13 targets.
Xavien Howard, Dolphins cornerback
Howard doesn’t have the name recognition of a Jalen Ramsey or a Marcus Peters, but he’s quietly emerging as one of the NFL’s best cover corners. He has seven interceptions in his last eight games, including two against Tom Brady in Week 14 last season and two more in last week’s win over the Raiders. Howard neutralized former Patriots No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks in the teams’ last meeting, holding him to one catch on seven targets. We could see him match up with Gordon if the wideout plays.
BY THE NUMBERS
230: The total number of receiving yards Patriots wideouts Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson have recorded this season.
Zero: The number of times Brady has targeted Gronkowski in the red zone on 21 snaps. Gronkowski averaged 1.57 red-zone targets per game last season.
2002: The last time the Patriots lost three consecutive games.
10-1: The Dolphins’ record in Tannehill’s last 11 starts, dating back to 2016.