Tom Brady began his career in Miami's Sun Life Stadium inauspiciously, with three wins and five losses against a Miami squad that has otherwise been a divisional also-ran for most of the past decade.
Since his 22-21 loss in 2009, Brady's New England Patriots have turned the tables in South Beach, winning each of the last three matchups at Sun Life.
This year's matchup boasts some high stakes for both teams. The Patriots are fighting to keep a grip on a first-round bye, while the Miami Dolphins are hoping to slide into the sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture.
With a big game looming in Week 15, let's take a look at three key matchups that will decide the outcome of the Pats vs. Dolphins.
LT Nate Solder vs. DE Cameron Wake
Nate Solder stunk up the joint against the Cleveland Browns, plain and simple. He allowed constant pressure off the edge from Jabaal Sheard (one sack) and graded out negatively by ProFootballFocus in pass blocking at minus-0.4. Several times he looked slow coming off the snap and couldn't get into his set fast enough on edge-rushers.
He picked a tough week to need a rebound performance, as Cameron Wake and Oliver Vernon have the pass-rushing talent to make Brady's Sunday a very long and unenjoyable one.
Vernon and Wake have 19 combined sacks and have the skills to flush Brady out of the pocket and disrupt his timing and release. Both Solder and RT Will Svitek will need a much stronger performance next week than they gave against the Browns, who sacked Brady four times and forced a fumble.
I'm singling out Solder because while both tackles will need chipping help from the Pats TEs, Solder is a franchise LT who should be expected to win his share of one-on-one battles with top DEs. The Pats can't pass out of a jumbo package more than a few times, so Solder—who returned to practice Wednesday following a concussion against the Browns—will need to hold his own without help in key spots against the Dolphins.
If he can't do it, the Pats offense can't be expected to do much, Rob Gronkowski or not.
LB Jamie Collins vs. TE Charles Clay
The Patriots are just 19th in the league at covering tight ends per Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, and it's due to their slow SEC linebackers in lead-footed Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes, who is 1985's ideal middle linebacker.
They simply can't keep up with receiving TEs like Tony Gonzalez in man coverage. In fact, the Patriots' overall ranking on covering TEs would likely be a lot lower if it weren't for Aqib Talib's shutout performance on Jimmy Graham earlier this year.
That's where rookie Jamie Collins, the Pats' top 2013 draft pick, can play a big role. He has the speed (4.64 40 time) and length (6'3", 80-inch wingspan) to stay with TEs in coverage, make plays on the ball and even disrupt passing lanes.
While Jordan Cameron (nine catches on nine targets for 121 yards and a touchdown) had a field day even with Collins seeing increased time against the Browns, dedicating Collins to blanketing upstart Miami TE Charles Clay (60 catches for 687 yards and six TDs) could free up the Pats to do some creative things with the rest of their defense. While he'll need plenty of bracket safety help over the top, a strong performance from Collins in man coverage could allow New England to blitz safeties and LBs and play more robber coverage on the back end.
Slowing Clay, who has been a binkie of Miami QB Ryan Tannehill's this season, could go a long way toward disrupting the Miami offense.
RB Shane Vereen vs. Dolphins LBs
Speaking of coverage weaknesses, the Dolphins have one when it comes to covering pass-catching running backs out of the backfield.
They're ranked just 27th in the NFL per Football Outsiders' DVOA, with all three of their LBs grading negatively in pass coverage according to ProFootballFocus. New acquisition Phillip Wheeler has been especially disappointing, grading out as the fourth-worst 4-3 OLB in the NFL at pass coverage.
That bodes well for the speedy Shane Vereen, New England's versatile running back who racked up 12 catches for 153 yards against the Cleveland Browns. Vereen can split out wide or run wheel routes out of the backfield, and his speed and short-area quickness make him a nightmare for base defenses, which have to move a linebacker on him.
With TE Rob Gronkowski out, the Pats are going to have to get creative. Vereen and WR Julian Edelman will likely play a huge role in exploiting matchups all over the field, as New England's personnel lends itself to an uptempo short-route offense. Vereen can actually help take the top off the defense with some big plays on linebackers playing man coverage.
When Brady sees that matchup, he locks onto it and throws there almost every time. If he gets a few of those looks, one or two big plays could be in the works, which may swing the game's outcome.
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