The Patriots will take another stab at wrapping up the division this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. New England will be assured of the AFC East crown with a win or tie.
Here is what the Patriots need to do to keep the division title in Foxborough for another year.
Patriots Defense vs. Dolphins Offense
The Patriots failed to contain the Cleveland Browns' best two receivers—Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon—in their narrow 27-26 victory on Sunday. That perhaps marked the first time all season that the Patriots defense was not able to force the opposition to do something out of their comfort zone.
One player that the Patriots defense and head coach Bill Belichick will need to be cognizant of on Sunday is tight end Charles Clay. In the last two weeks, Clay has totaled 14 catches for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Belichick explained in Wednesday's conference call just how important a player like Clay is to the Dolphins:
Very explosive player, he’s got good vertical speed, very explosive with the ball in his hands. The thing I’ve been impressed with really is his blocking. He’s a tough, competitive kid that has got good playing strength and definitely is willing to stick his nose in there and block defensive ends, block linebackers.
You see some receiving tight ends in the league that have less, I would say interest, in blocking. He’s not one of those at all. He’s a very willing blocker and effective blocker. He’s a tough kid that has good playing strength. They match him up against defensive ends at times and he hangs in there and does a good job – blocking Charles Johnson at Carolina and guys like that, as well as linebackers.
I think his playmaking ability and the explosiveness in his game as a receiver and as run-after-catch player are all pretty well documented, it’s out there. But I’ve really been impressed with the way he competes as a blocker too.
Look for New England to employ more base defense this week.
I expect Dont'a Hightower, Brandon Spikes and Jamie Collins to all get a lot of snaps at the linebacker position. If they can play the run as well as they did last week—thanks in part to defensive tackle Sealver Siliga—they will make the Dolphins one-dimensional.
If the Dolphins are forced into passing situations, look for Chandler Jones, Chris Jones and Rob Ninkovich to wreak havoc in the backfield.
Patriots Offense vs. Dolphins Defense
Tom Brady was held in check during the Week 8 game against the Dolphins, totaling 116 yards on 22 throws.
In all probability, Brady will be without Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Dobson—the two leading receivers last time around—making it even more difficult to move the ball against the talented Miami defense.
Brady had nothing but positives to say about the Dolphins defense in his weekly press conference:
They’re really good. I mean, they were really good then too. We didn’t do much offensively – we didn’t do much in the first half, we made a few plays there in the second half, but they’re a good defense at all levels. They really like their linebackers, they’ve got a really deep defensive line that can rush the quarterback, and they’ve got guys in the secondary they really like, the same safeties that have been there for like three years, and then [Brent] Grimes is playing great and Nolan Carroll’s been a great player for them. I mean, they’re a really solid defense.
They’ve got a really good scheme. There are really no easy plays out there, so we’ve got to go out there and earn it. They play well at home, and [it’s] always dog fights down there in Miami, so I think we’re expecting more the same, and go out there and see what we can put together, but we had a good practice today. Hopefully we can follow it up so we’re most prepared, and then go down and try to win a really important game.
Instead of attacking deep down the field, look for the Patriots to use Josh Boyce, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Shane Vereen on a variety of screens. A healthy dose of misdirection in the screen and run game should give the Patriots a chance to keep the Miami rushers at bay.
Expect Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount to get plenty of carries on Sunday. Keeping Brady in safe down-and-distance situations is key when working without a full repertoire of receivers.
What They're Saying
You can't replace Rob Gronkowski. In fact, you shouldn't even try. The Patriots are going to need to adapt.
Oliver Thomas from NEPatriotsDraft.com took a look at charting the personnel groupings following Gronkowski's exit:
Upon reflection of the last 39 snaps without the Gronkowski dynamic, the Patriots ran 17 plays from “11” personnel, six plays from a mixture of “21” and “12” personnel, and 16 plays from “10” personnel. And from those, eight different combinations of running backs, tight ends and wide receivers were used.
Now, New England will never be the same offense without Gronkowski. The defensive openings he creates are no longer there, and neither are the in-traffic receptions.
The Patriots will have to figure out a way to win with the formula and players in place. It will not be an easy feat, but rallying for 13 points in 30 seconds wasn’t either.
Look for Josh McDaniels to show off his creativity once again against Miami.
Tale of the Tape
If you're the opposing team, how many points do you have to be ahead before you feel comfortable? 28? 40? At this point, you just can't count out Tom Brady.
Shane Vereen is becoming a weapon as a receiver. LeGarrette Blount is running like a hammer on wheels. Stevan Ridley seems to be out of the doghouse.
Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas have had their moments, but can't match the versatility that the triumvirate of Patriots can.
With Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins still not certain to play, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will once again take center stage. Brian Hartline has played well this year, but Mike Wallace continues to disappoint.
It is rare to see the Patriots completely overmatched at the tight end position after the likes of Daniel Graham, Ben Watson, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have suited up in recent years. With D.J. Williams and Matthew Mulligan on the field instead, Charles Clay gives the Dolphins a distinct advantage.
The Patriots offensive line has been hit with injuries, but this is still the same Miami line that gave up six sacks to New England the last time out. If Nate Solder is able to suit up, the Patriots have the advantage here.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are both exceeding expectations this year, but the interior of the Patriots line has underwhelmed. Sealver Siliga—who played well against the Browns—has been a nice surprise, but he can't compare to the incredible Dolphins line. Cameron Wake, Dion Jordan and Olivier Vernon are tough to handle on the edge.
After the initial shock of Jerod Mayo's injury wore off, the Patriots linebacker group is finally starting to round into shape. Dont'a Hightower had his best game of the year against Cleveland and Jamie Collins has gained Belichick's trust on the field. They aren't household names, but Dannell Ellerbe, Phillip Wheeler and Koa Misi make a lot of plays behind their stout front four.
The Patriots have the flashier names—Devin McCourty and Aqib Talib are getting a lot of attention this year—but the Dolphins unit has played very well as a group. Brent Grimes is quietly having an All-Pro level season.
Stephen Gostkowski continued his fantastic play last week—another long field goal conversion and a successful onside kick—and should be considered the top kicker in the league. Rookie Dolphins kicker Caleb Sturgis has shown a lot of talent, but is still a bit inconsistent.
Both punters—Ryan Allen and Brandon Fields—are playing at a high level this year.
Overall: Patriots 4-2-3
The tale of the tape favors the Patriots by a good margin, but the Dolphins have an advantage on the defensive line that has proven tough to overcome for many teams this year. The Patriots will need to press their advantage at quarterback by forcing Ryan Tannehill into some tough decisions.
Wednesday's Injury Report Analysis
Did Not Participate: Aaron Dobson, Nate Solder
Limited Participation: Michael Hoomanawanui, Kyle Arrington, Marcus Cannon, Marquice Cole, Tom Brady, Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory, Brandon Spikes, Aqib Talib, Kenbrell Thompkins, Will Svitek
Full Participation: Danny Amendola, Matthew Slater, Shane Vereen
Aaron Dobson missed practice with a foot injury, while Nate Solder was absent on account of a concussion.
Tom Brady was only a limited participant in practice, suffering some right shoulder problems.
For the Dolphins, safety Reshad Jones and center Mike Pouncey were the key absences. Jones missed practice with a groin injury, while Pouncey's absence was not injury related.