Dolphins-Patriots: Five Things To Watch

Posted Dec 23, 2011

Six games separate them in the standings but the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots are fully aware that records truly don’t matter in this rivalry.

In fact, if these two teams could only play in the month of December it would be the Patriots dreading kickoff more than the Dolphins. As dominant as New England has been since Tom Brady took over at quarterback in 2001, for some reason Miami has been able to frustrate him in the last month of the calendar year by coming out on top in 2004, 2006 and 2009.

The Patriots enter Saturday’s game at Gillette Stadium with an 11-3 record and having already clinched the AFC East title. Brady is having yet another career year that was kick-started in the season opener at Miami in a 38-24 victory that saw him throw for 517 yards and four touchdowns.

It took seven more weeks for the Dolphins to finally get in the win column after an 0-7 start, but they have won five of their last seven games and look like a completely different team than the one that took the field under the lights at Sun Life Stadium on December 12th.

“As a team I think we’ve matured a lot. It was a rough night for everybody,” said interim Head Coach Todd Bowles, who took over for Tony Sparano before last week’s 30-23 win at Buffalo. “We couldn’t do anything right. They did everything right. It’s to their credit. They got a great win on us. We just have to make sure we do our due diligence and do our homework this time.”

New England is still playing for home field advantage in the playoffs and Miami wants to keep its successful late run going to create momentum headed into next season. These key match-ups will be the ones to watch as the Dolphins look to avenge that opening night loss:

1. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady versus Miami’s secondary – As Bowles and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan explained, Brady could do no wrong in the first meeting and nothing the Dolphins tried – blitzes, zone coverage, man coverage or even prevent defense – worked that night. Brady has done that to just about every defense this season, but this is a different secondary he will see, one that has intercepted 11 passes in the last six games after picking off just two in the first eight. Cornerback Vontae Davis is playing at a Pro Bowl level and his improved along with Sean Smith’s and the other defensive backs has allowed Nolan to take more chances and bring more pressure. That will need to continue at an even higher level if Miami hopes to slow down Brady and the passing game.

2. Dolphins running back Reggie Bush versus New England’s front seven – Bush managed just 38 yards on 11 carries in the first game as he was still getting acclimated to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense. He has since found his identity, as he proved last week in the snow in Buffalo when he rushed for a career-high 203 yards and a 76-yard touchdown on 25 carries to earn AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Bush needs 27 yards to reach 1,000 for the first time in his career and the Patriots have the league’s worst overall defense, 19th against the run. They are allowing 4.6 yards per carry and 117.6 yards per game, so Bush appears to have the significant edge here.

3. Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez versus Miami’s inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett These two second-year tight ends have wreaked havoc across the NFL since entering the league and Gronkowski already has set an NFL record for most touchdown catches in a season by a tight end with 15. He caught six passes for 86 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with Miami and Hernandez reeled in seven passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Dansby and Burnett have since taken off defensively and are second and third, respectively, on the team in tackles with 90 (78 solo) for Dansby and 80 (65 solo) for Burnett. Each has one interception and they have combined for 4.5 sacks and seven pass breakups, so if they can neutralize Gronkowski and Hernandez that will take away two of Brady’s favorite receiving targets.

4. Dolphins rookie center Mike Pouncey versus Patriots veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork – Talk about a tall task in his first NFL start, Pouncey not only had to block Wilfork in the opener but he also was matched up with big Albert Haynesworth periodically. Haynesworth is no longer with the Patriots and Pouncey for all intents and purposes is no longer a rookie. Wilfork is having one of his patented Pro Bowl-caliber seasons with 2.5 sacks, two interceptions with one returned for his first career touchdown, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, three passes defensed and 46 tackles (28 solo). Everything starts in the middle of the line of scrimmage and if Pouncey can win that battle both in pass protection for quarterback Matt Moore and in the running game opening holes for Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas, an upset just might be in the cards for Miami.

5. Dolphins interim Head Coach Todd Bowles versus Patriots head coach Bill Belichick – Bowles earned his first career victory last week at Buffalo less than a week after being named to the position, while Belichick is the winningest head coach of the last decade with three Super Bowl wins to his credit. Bowles proved last week that this stage isn’t too big for him by staying cool and collected on the road against a division rival no less and leaving with a win. His players respect him and he has made it a point not to shake up something that was working before he took over, which has continued this week. But Bowles will be matching wits with a coach in Belichick who has seen it all and been in every conceivable situation, so he will no doubt have his troops ready and eager to protect their home turf. For Bowles to go to 2-0 as a head coach he’ll need to keep a level head again and not let the game get away early.

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