One month ago, the Miami Dolphins were left for dead after an embarrassing loss on Monday Night Football to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The loss was the Dolphins' fifth in six games and dropped them to 4-5 on the season.
Fast-forward four weeks later and the Dolphins are on the cusp of the making the playoffs, tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC's sixth seed with a 7-6 record after winning three of their last four games.
In Week 15, the Dolphins host their AFC East rivals, the New England Patriots, in a huge matchup for both teams. With winnable games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets to close out the season, the Dolphins can take a huge step toward the playoffs with a win on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Patriots can clinch the division title with a win and can move into a tie with the Denver Broncos for the top seed in the AFC.
Playoff Scenario: #Patriots win AFC East with a win/tie. Clinch playoff spot with BAL loss/tie— PatriotsInsider (@PatriotsInsider) December 12, 2013
It appears that the Dolphins are facing the Patriots at the perfect time, with New England coming to Miami with a depleted defense and an offense that is missing its top playmaker in Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a season-ending injury last week against the Cleveland Browns.
You can't overstate how much the loss of Gronkowski hurts the Patriots offense.
The Patriots averaged over 11 more points per game with Gronkowski in the lineup than they did over the first six games of the season without him. Their red-zone offense has been significantly better as well, moving all the way up to fifth in the league, after ranking as the 30th ranked red-zone offense without Gronk.
However, even without him in the lineup, you can never underestimate the Patriots in December games.
The New England Patriots are 17-1 in their last 18 games in December. Talk about getting hot at the right time.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 12, 2013
To their credit, the Dolphins have been playing good football of their own. The Miami offense came alive last week in Pittsburgh, scoring 34 points in the victory, the most they've scored in a game all season.
A matchup with a struggling Patriots defense should only help their offense continue to play well. New England has allowed 28 points per game over their last four and have struggled getting off the field on third downs, ranking 31st in the league in that department.
It will be up to Ryan Tannehill to continue his strong play as of late and take advantage of opportunities this defense will surely give him.
Over his last four games, Tannehill has averaged over 277 yards per game with seven touchdowns and four interceptions in leading his team to a 3-1 record over that span.
Random #Dolphins stat: QB Ryan Tannehill has had an 84.0 or higher passer rating in six consecutive games.— James Walker (@JamesWalkerNFL) December 12, 2013
The Dolphins offense is capable of getting into a shootout with the Patriots, but they are hoping they won't have to if they can get a strong game from their defense.
The last time these two teams met, the Dolphins defense held Tom Brady to just 116 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception.
To put up a similar effort, they are going to need their front seven to put pressure on Brady.
It shouldn't be too hard for a Dolphins unit that is fifth in the league in sacks and is going up against a Patriots offensive line that has allowed Brady to get sacked 36 times on the season, including eight times in the last three games.
.@MiamiDolphins 40 sacks (5th in NFL) Multiple sacks in 10 straight games. Olivier Vernon T-4th NFL w/ 11.5 sacks. 7 sacks in last 4 games.— NFLN_Playbook (@NFLN_Playbook) December 11, 2013
The Patriots have won seven straight games against the Dolphins, with their last loss coming in 2009 in Miami. However, this Miami team is brimming with confidence and can see their first playoff berth since 2008 in sight.
Confession: I've got to admit this is the most confident I've ever seen a Dolphins team heading into a Patriots game since 2008.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 12, 2013
Both the Dolphins and Patriots have been very familiar with playing in close games this season. New England is 7-3 on the year in games decided by a touchdown or less, while the Dolphins are 5-4.
Which team is going to win on Sunday?
In a close game, you would normally give the edge to Brady and the Patriots but with Gronkowski out on offense and the defense playing extremely poorly, this is a team that is ripe for the picking and the Dolphins should take advantage.
Expect the Dolphins to run the ball effectively against a defense that has struggled to stop it, and Ryan Tannehill to put up one of his best performances of the season, leading his team to a victory and putting them in the driver's seat for a playoff berth.
Prediction: Dolphins 31, Patriots 24