After losing two of their last three games, the New England Patriots need to take care of business against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. The Pats must win several decisive in-game matchups to halt their slide and maintain their tenuous grip on the AFC East.
Before breaking down this week’s key matchups, I’d just like to say I’ll always be a fan first and foremost. No matter what I opine or whichever choice critiques I may have of the team, I’m always rooting for the Patriots.
As such, I still can’t swallow last week’s loss to the New York Jets.
The Patriots weren’t going 15-1, so losing a game isn’t especially bothersome. Losing a key division matchup still isn’t the end of the world. What should really stick in New England’s craw is the gross miscarriage of NFL justice through which the officials robbed the Patriots of a fair shot to win the game.
The penalty in question was an overtime call on Chris Jones for pushing his teammate during a game-winning field-goal attempt. Even after watching the film, it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what Jones did to warrant a flag.
I’m admittedly biased, but it honestly looked like a bunch of fat guys trying to squeeze through the same door, and Jones’ “pushing” had literally zero impact on the play. Jets kicker Nick Folk had a clean look and shanked it.
Of course, Folk didn’t miss the second time from 15 yards closer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
New England and its fans live by the “one day at a time” doctrine, but in a conference where the Denver Broncos just lost their first game of the season, the Patriots could easily be tied with them instead of a game behind.
That call may loom very large as the playoffs approach, especially if it ends up meaning the difference between the Patriots travelling to Denver or hosting the Broncos at Gillette come January.
Of course, with nine games remaining on the schedule, the Patriots ultimately control their own fate, and it’s up to them to make sure last week’s controversial penalty doesn’t define the rest of their season. Yes, they got hosed. But they frankly need to play better to avoid putting any more games in the referees’ hands.
That begins this week when they host the Dolphins.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Whichever Misguided Soul Gets in His Way
Sporting an oversized full-length brace on that troublesome arm of his, Gronkowski looked like one of those guys from Elysium in his season debut. He was heavily involved and was targeted a team-high 17 times, according to ESPN.com, coming down with eight catches for 114 yards. He just missed several potential touchdowns, including a slightly overthrown pass that glanced off one of his outstretched mitts.
The Patriots’ clearest path to an offensive revival in Week 8 is once again through Gronkowski. By continuing to channel their offense through him, the Patriots will not only keep the ball in the hands of their best playmaker, but also exploit one of Miami’s biggest defensive weaknesses.
Yielding roughly 70 yards and a touchdown per game, Miami ranks among the worst teams in the NFL against opposing tight ends.
The Cleveland Browns’ Jordan Cameron and the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham posted the best individual days against the Dolphins. Cameron rocked out to the tune of nine catches, 108 yards and a touchdown, while Graham harpooned them for four catches, 100 yards and a pair of scores.
Considering how well Gronkowski mimicked Graham during practice leading up to a Week 6 matchup with the Saints, he should have just as much success tearing through Miami’s porous defense. Given New England’s inconsistent play at the wide receiver position and Tom Brady’s sudden accuracy issues, Gronk should enjoy a massive workload as well. Those two factors alone suggest a game-changing performance.
I won’t be the least bit surprised if Gronkowski absolutely goes ham. Ten-plus catches for 120 yards and a pair of scores might even be a conservative projection.
Patriots Offensive Line vs. Dolphins Defensive Line
New England’s offensive line has shown uncharacteristic chinks in the armor lately. Typically one of the most reliable units in the NFL, Logan Mankins and crew have recently left Brady more exposed than an ulcerous open sore.
After allowing just 27 sacks all season in 2012, the Patriots have already yielded 20 through seven games in 2013. Unfortunately for Brady, the offensive line seems to be getting worse, not better.
Brady was only sacked seven times through the first four games but has been taken down 13 times in the three games since.
If the Patriots are to reverse the trend this week, they’ll need to contain Miami’s disruptive defensive line. The Dolphins as a team aren’t particularly adept at hunting the quarterback, ranking 20th in the NFL with 17 sacks. Of those 17 sacks, however, only four have come from a linebacker or defensive back.
The Dolphins generate the vast majority of their upfield pressure in the trenches. Defensive end Cameron Wake leads a unit that can make Brady’s day miserable if left uncontained.
As Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald points out, the Dolphins run a very similar defense to the Cincinnati Bengals, who made the Patriots’ formerly high-flying offense look more like a farmer trying to get his donkey to move.
The Patriots can expect to see many of the same basic principles this week, because, as Salguero notes, Miami’s defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle came from the Bengals and brought much of their defensive scheme with him.
Cincinnati was able to pressure Brady throughout the game and notched four sacks despite relying mostly on its defensive line to do so. Since then, the Patriots haven’t kept Brady’s jersey any cleaner.
New England can’t afford a repeat performance from its offensive line. If the Dolphins get in Brady’s face and collapse the pocket without sacrificing personnel in coverage, they may be able to at least contain Gronkowski. A lackluster day from the big boys up front could mean yet another opponent putting the clamps on New England’s offense.
Patriots vs. Themselves
In a normal week, Aqib Talib vs. receiver Mike Wallace would be worth noting. With Talib playing lockdown defense and Wallace’s inconsistent play in Miami’s unimaginative offense, however, neither player figures to be much of a factor. Nevertheless, consider the matchup noted.
Ditto for Chandler Jones vs. whichever underperforming tackle the Dolphins put across from him. The Dolphins have allowed 26 sacks—the fourth-highest total in the NFL through seven games. Given Miami’s struggles protecting the quarterback and Jones’ continued emergence as a premier edge-rusher—he’s on pace for 15 sacks—he should feast on Sunday.
Citing his sack attack as a pivotal matchup would be like saying the key matchup on a Sunday morning is me vs. bacon. It’s no contest. In fact, bacon, if you’re out there reading this, you can bring your entire breakfast team of eggs, sausage, home fries, biscuits, gravy, coffee and orange juice, and it still won’t be a fair fight.
I imagine that’s how Jones feels about the Dolphins tackles this week. Like Talib vs. Wallace, Jones against those tackles isn’t the most critical matchup, but it’s one the Patriots should win and is worth noting. So consider it noted.
Which matchup is most important?
The other crucial matchup to focus on this week actually doesn’t involve the Dolphins at all. To beat Miami on Sunday, the Patriots need to avoid beating themselves.
Obviously, the bizarre pushing penalty in overtime got most of the press during the week, but that wasn’t the only time the Patriots Plaxico-ed themselves. New England committed seven penalties for a season-high 100 yards in last week’s losing effort.
In a game that not only was decided by a field goal, but also went all the way to overtime in the process, those 100 yards of field position just might have come in handy.
It doesn’t take John Madden to realize that the Patriots likely cost themselves a win on the overtime pushing penalty. As an outside observer, it’s baffling to try to imagine why the penalty was called—for the first time ever—on such a crucial play, but rules are rules and the refs upheld them.
If you’re keeping track at home, that’s already one instance in which the Patriots directly cost themselves a potential win. But wait, there’s more!
In the closing moments of the first half, Julian Edelman broke off a fantastic punt return to put the Patriots at the New York 47-yard line. Just a hop, skip and a Gronk away from field-goal range, the Patriots only needed a couple quick passes to set Stephen Gostkowski up for a field-goal attempt that could have been the difference between losing in overtime and winning in regulation.
Instead, an illegal block by rookie Jamie Collins sent the Patriots all the way back to their own 22-yard line. It was a 10-yard penalty but actually cost the Patriots 31 yards. New England gained 21 yards before punting. Without Collins’ penalty, the Patriots would have been attempting a 44-yard field goal instead.
Two chances to win, two penalties. It’s a good thing teams can’t earn two losses in one game, because that’s essentially what the Patriots did.
That’s just two plays. In a close contest, the Patriots gave away an additional 75 yards on five other penalties throughout the day. Fans want to blame the refs for the controversial penalty, but the Patriots cost themselves the game before it ever got to that point.
They’ll have a hard time beating the Dolphins if they can’t stop beating themselves.