The New England Patriots are facing their first literal must-win game of the season.
Defeat the 8-5 Miami Dolphins on Sunday, and the 6-7 Patriots would keep their extremely slim playoff chances alive — while also disrupting Miami’s chances of qualifying for the postseason.
A loss, though, would mathematically eliminate the Patriots with two weeks still to play.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for in this Week 15 clash:
Time: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Location: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
Spread: Dolphins -1 1/2
Over/under: 41 1/2
The Dolphins are an NFL-best 10-3 against the spread this season. The Patriots are 6-7 ATS.
New England won big in Miami last season (43-0 in Week 2) but traditionally has struggled down there, going just 2-5 in its last seven visits to South Florida.
The Patriots took the first meeting between these AFC East rivals this season, winning 21-11 at Gillette Stadium in Week 1.
The Patriots flopped in the second half of their L.A. back-to-back, falling to the Los Angeles Rams 24-3. The loss was their seventh of the season, assuring they’ll win fewer than 10 games for the first time since 2002 and severely damaging their playoff chances.
The Dolphins led early and rallied late but couldn’t climb out of a 20-point hole against the Kansas City Chiefs, losing 33-27 to the defending Super Bowl champs.
Miami’s defense, which ranks second in the NFL in points allowed this season, intercepted three Patrick Mahomes passes but surrendered 393 passing yards, including 136 to star tight end Travis Kelce.
Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa set career highs for completions (28), attempts (48) and passing yards (316) in a losing effort.
The Patriots listed 14 players as questionable:
DT Adam Butler (shoulder)
DT Byron Cowart (back)
OT Jermaine Eluemunor (ankle)
K Nick Folk (back)
DT Lawrence Guy (shoulder)
RB Damien Harris (ankle)
OL Justin Herron (ankle)
CB J.C. Jackson (knee)
CB Jonathan Jones (neck)
G Shaq Mason (calf)
WR Donte Moncrief (thigh)
WR Matthew Slater (knee)
RB J.J. Taylor (quadricep)
RB James White (foot)
Eluemunor and Herron are two names to watch, as they’ve rotated at left tackle since Isaiah Wynn landed on injured reserve. Eluemunor, who’s started the last three games, missed practiced Thursday.
Harris also popped back up on the injury report Thursday with an ankle injury after leaving last week’s game with a back ailment. The Patriots have four running backs on their roster, and Sony Michel is the only one not listed as questionable.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman, outside linebacker Shilique Calhoun and defensive tackle Carl Davis all were designated to return from IR this week and could play Sunday if added to the active roster.
The Dolphins listed nine as questionable:
RB Salvon Ahmed (shoulder)
LB Jerome Baker (knee)
G Ereck Flowers (ankle)
TE Mike Gesicki (shoulder)
WR Jakeem Grant (hamstring)
S Bobby McCain (ankle)
WR DeVante Parker (hamstring)
LB Elandon Roberts (chest)
LB Kyle Van Noy (hip)
Ex-Patriots Van Noy and Roberts both missed last week’s loss to Kansas City. Gesicki, Parker, Grant and McCain all left that game with injuries.
Parker, Gesicki and Grant are key offensive contributors for Miami, ranking 1-2-3 in receiving yards. Grant also is the Dolphins’ top return man.
Dolphins receiver Preston Williams is on IR, and leading rusher Myles Gaskin is not expected to play after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. Ahmed, Matt Breida and DeAndre Washington are Miami’s top running back options behind Gaskin.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Cam Newton, Patriots quarterback
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores called Newton “a problem” this week, and he certainly was in these teams’ first meeting, rushing 15 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns. But this Miami defense has improved significantly since September, and opponents have wised up to the read-option concepts that killed the Dolphins in Week 1.
Newton badly needs a bounce-back after managing just 84, 69 and 119 passing yards in his last three outings (and a mere 16 rushing yards on seven carries against the Rams before being benched in the fourth quarter). He’ll be facing a Dolphins defense that blitzes more than almost any other team in the NFL (third-most behind the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, per Pro Football Reference) and is tied for the league lead in takeaways.
Miami has not been far from dominant against the run, however, ranking 21st in rushing yards allowed per game, 25th in yards allowed per carry and 23rd in Football Outsiders’ rush defense DVOA. With Newton’s legs and a (potentially) healthy Harris at their disposal, that’s the clearest path to victory for the Patriots’ offense.
Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins quarterback
The Patriots haven’t lost to a rookie quarterback since Geno Smith in 2013. Since then, they’re 9-0, beating the likes of Derek Carr, Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen and, most recently, Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Justin Herbert, who endured the worst game of his young career against New England two weeks ago.
Can Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, break that drought? He’s impressed thus far, throwing nine touchdowns with one interception since replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 8. And Tagovailoa has the added benefit of practicing against a Patriots-style defense on a daily basis.
Julian Edelman, Patriots wide receiver
It’s unclear whether the Patriots plan to activate Edelman ahead of Sunday’s game, and what his role would be if he is activated. The 34-year-old clearly looked like a shell of himself early in the season but could provide a sizable boost to New England’s passing game if his injured knee has fully healed.
We’ll also be keeping a close eye on disappointing second-year pro N’Keal Harry, who’s trended upward in recent weeks. Harry said he’s focused on using his size and physicality to his advantage, which was evident on the contested catches he made against the Rams and Chargers.
Lynn Bowden Jr., Dolphins wide receiver
Bowden, a multitalented rookie who was linked to the Patriots during the pre-draft process, enjoyed a breakout game against the Chiefs, catching seven passes on nine targets for 82 yards while other Dolphins wideouts battled injuries. He’ll be in the spotlight again Sunday if Parker and/or Grant can’t go.
The Patriots also could see Isaiah Ford in this game. He’s back on Miami’s practice squad after being traded to New England but failing to earn playing time. The Patriots had hoped to sign Ford to their own practice squad after waiving him, but the receiver opted to rejoin the Dolphins instead.
Devin Asiasi/Dalton Keene, Patriots tight ends
With usual starter Ryan Izzo on IR for at least two more weeks, Asiasi and Keene will have plenty of opportunities to contribute down the stretch. The third-round draft picks have brought little to the passing game thus far, combining for just one catch (by Keene) on two targets all season.
Tight end is a difficult position for rookies to learn, and Asiasi and Keene both had their development stunted by a virtual offseason, a lack of preseason games and midseason injuries. Still, it would be nice to see some production out of them over these final few games. The Patriots need to know whether they can count on either to become their No. 1 tight of the future.
Xavien Howard, Dolphins cornerback
Howard leads the NFL with nine interceptions this season, including a one-handed gem in the end zone against Kansas City. He’s also Pro Football Focus’s top-graded cornerback. He and high-priced free agent addition Byron Jones will be a difficult cornerback duo for Newton to throw on.