The New England Patriots host the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 with an outside chance of earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.
New England (11-4) needs a win and a Houston loss to usurp the second seed in the AFC standings. In fact, with even more serendipity (in the form of an additional Denver loss), the Pats still have an outside shot of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But they might have their work cut out for them against the suddenly streaking Miami Dolphins (7-8). The fish have no chance of making the postseason, but you could certainly make the case that they belong there. They're 3-2 in their last five games, with a win over Seattle, and both losses coming against playoff front-runners (San Francisco and New England, respectively).
Miami hasn't beaten New England since 2009, but the Dolphins always manage to play the Pats close. Let's take a look at what to expect on Sunday:
When: Sunday, Dec. 30th, 4:25 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.
Watch: CBS (check local listings)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Spread: New England -10 (via VegasInsider.com – LVH)
The Pats have been favored by 10 or more points five times this year, so this is nothing new for them. Unfortunately, they're only 1-4 against the spread in those games.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, have lost eight games this year, but five of those losses were by five or less points.
Picking against Bill Belichick at home with significant playoff implications is rarely a fruitful endeavor. So personally, I would suggest you pass on this one.
But in pool play, take Miami and the points.
Over/Under: 46.5 (via VegasInsider.com – LVH)
Even with the inflated totals they tend to go up against, the Pats have been an "over" machine in 2012. They even boasted a nine-game "over" streak between Weeks 3 and 12.
After the Jacksonville game last weekend, this will be only their second game coming off an under since September. They hit the under against the Dolphins in Miami, but followed that game up with a 42-point performance over Houston.
Look for New England, who has the world to play for, to come out with playoff-ready efficacy on offense. Whether Miami can keep up is debatable, but it should put up enough to exceed the total.
Go with the over.
Miami Dolphins Injury Report (via USA Today – 12/27/12)
|CB Sean Smith||Knee||Questionable|
|CB Nolan Carroll Jr.||Knee||Questionable|
|LB Koa Misi||Ankle||Questionable|
|WR Davone Bess||Back||Questionable|
|QB Pat Devlin||Hip||Questionable|
|K Dan Carpenter||Groin||Injured Reserve|
New England Patriots Injury Report (via USA Today – 12/27/12)
|LB Brandon Spikes||Knee||Questionable|
|CB Alfonzo Dennard||Hamstring||Questionable|
|DT Ron Brace||Elbow||Questionable|
|T Markus Zusevics||Illness||Questionable|
|TE Rob Gronkowski||Forearm||Doubtful|
Fantasy Big Plays
Miami Dolphins: TE Anthony Fasano
Fasano didn't have a big game in the two teams' first meeting, recording just one catch for 14 yards. But there's reason for optimism in Week 17.
The Pats allow 275.5 passing yards per game, 29th in the NFL. More importantly, Football Outsiders rates them the third-worst team in the league against opposing tight ends.
Fasano leads the Dolphins with five touchdown catches, so while he might not be able to put up huge yardage numbers, he's a good bet to find the end zone in this one. If you're in need of a stopgap tight end, that's more than you can ask for.
New England Patriots: QB Tom Brady
New England has scored between 37 and 59 points in six of seven games. The one time they didn't—against these very Dolphins—Brady followed up with a four-touchdown performance against the Texans.
Well, they failed to exceed 37 again last week in Jacksonville, and a motivated Pats offense usually makes for a big week from its leader.
New England should take to the air early and often in this one, especially considering the dichotomy between Miami's strong rush defense and weaker pass defense. Brady will reap the statistical benefits of that play-calling.
Key to Victory
The First Quarter
New England has a habit for pounding teams into submission. And more often than not, those trouncings start early and continue to go on often.
Take, for example, the Texans game three weeks ago. The Pats came out with a vengeance, marched the ball down the field for three straight touchdowns, took a 21-0 lead, then salted the game away for the next 43 minutes.
If they get out to that kind of start, the Dolphins don't stand a chance. But if Miami can hang around throughout the first half, it stands a chance of sneaking out of New England with a victory.
With a first-round bye on the line, New England will come strong out of the gate and grab an early lead. But it won't be over in the first half like it was against Houston.
Miami is good enough, and playing well enough, to stick around for 60 minutes. They may not keep it within two scores for the majority of the afternoon, but don't be surprised if it finishes that way.
Predicted Score: New England 34, Miami 26