The schedule-makers (and pure luck) have been kind to the Patriots the past few weeks. Two games against certifiable NFL have-nots and a bye week were the greatest gift possible to a team that was struggling to find its way.
Now, the Patriots must face a team that, while not in the top strata of the suddenly-polarized NFL, isn't exactly a pushover.
The Dolphins are a team that has been known to give the Patriots problems. Its linebackers, particularly Joey Porter and Jason Taylor, have long been a thorn in Brady's side, regardless of how their teams as a whole perform.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the keys to a Patriots victory.
Make their passing game beat you. Chad Henne may be playing Chad Pennington's old role well, but the passing game is still not the forte of this team. The Dolphins currently have the 29th-ranked passing offense in the NFL, with Henne rated as the NFL's 23rd-ranked passer.
Contrast that with Miami's third-ranked rushing attack, and it becomes obvious what this team wants to do.
Bill Belichick is well-known for trying to take away the other team's strength, forcing them to beat him in another way. This week, I bet he does everything possible to entice the Dolphins into throwing the ball.
Special teams, special teams, special teams. Ted Ginn Jr. showed last week exactly how important this often-overlooked aspect of the game can be. Without his two electrifying returns for touchdowns, the Dolphins clearly would have lost against the Jets last week.
Beyond the touchdowns, Ginn is averaging 34.9 yards per return, good for second in the league.
It will be important to limit his return yardage—it means nothing to stop their offense if you allow a score on a return.
Prepare for a Wildcat wrinkle. It's telling that the Dolphins debuted their Wildcat offense against the Patriots last season—it was a situation where there was a clear mismatch in talent (the Patriots were coming off an undefeated regular season, and the Dolphins had narrowly avoided 0-16), so it made sense to take unorthodox measures.
This year is not much different. Tom Brady has returned and, after the last two games, looks almost his 2007 incarnation. Miami, though improved, is still the underdog in this fight.
It seems the perfect time to try and throw the Patriots off-rhythm.
One of the weaknesses of the Wildcat as the Dolphins run it is that neither Ronnie Brown nor Ricky Williams is much of a threat to throw the ball. Once the defense has ascertained who has the ball, they merely have to tackle well.
Perhaps Sunday the Dolphins will throw Pat White in more, giving the offense an entirely different dimension.
Whatever the case, the Patriots must prepare for a wide range of contingencies.
Be careful with the ball. This is, of course, always a priority, but it should be doubly so in this game. There is no better way to keep an underdog in a game than to give away the ball.
Turnovers are especially useful to teams with mediocre offenses, as short fields make any offensive unit look good.
Hopefully, the Patriots will continue their form as of late, and cruise to victory. If so, this team could again begin to build its case that it is part of the NFL's elite.
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