Who: Dolphins (8-5) vs. Patriots (6-7)
When: Sunday, December 20, 1:00 EDT
Where: Hard Rock Stadium – Miami Gardens, Fla.
Weather: 78 degrees, 66 percent humidity, 7 MPH winds
To borrow an old cliché, throw out the record books when these two teams get together – especially in December in the Dolphins' home building. Since 2013, Miami has five victories at Hard Rock Stadium over the Patriots with four of those games happening in the final month of the calendar.
While a Dolphins victory would continue that particular trend, the win would buck another. Beating New England would secure a superior record to that of Miami's rival to the north for the first time since 2002.
Standing in the way of that accomplishment is one of the league's most well-coached teams that rarely beats itself, and has a penchant for capitalizing on the mistakes of their opponent.
"Every division game is a big game," Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores said. "We know this team. We know they are tough, they are well-coached, they are competitive, they'll be ready to go. They're going to give us their best shot – we know that – in all three phases. They're going to try to apply pressure in all three phases and it will be a tough, competitive, hard-fought, 60-minute ball game. That's just the way it is with that group."
Friday Injury Report
Miami listed nine players as QUESTIONABLE for the game Sunday.
New England listed 14 players as QUESTIONABLE for Sunday's game.
You can access the Dolphins-Patriots Week 15 injury report here.
Stop the Run
The Week 1 meeting between Miami and New England probably feels like an eternity ago. On a football timeline, it kind of was. The Patriots ran the ball for 217 yards on 42 rushing attempts (5.17 yards per carry), giving the NFL the first glimpse of the offensive approach under new quarterback Cam Newton.
Newton's 113 carries are third-most among NFL quarterbacks (Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson). Since the Week 1 game, Miami's defense has tightened up significantly allowing nearly half of that season-opening total (112.2 rushing yards allowed per game) on average.
Miami's defensive tackle play has a lot to do with the production of the run defense. Raekwon Davis and Zach Sieler rank tied for fifth and first, respectively, among interior defensive linemen in run stops since Week 9, per Pro Football Focus. Christian Wilkins missed two games over that period, but he's ranked seventh for the entire season in that category with 25 tackles within two yards of the line of scrimmage. Both Wilkins (fifth) and Davis (ninth) rank top 10 in ESPN’s Run Stop Win Rate.
Only the 49ers utilize a fullback more than the Patriots. San Francisco rushed for 128 yards in their Week 5 loss to the Dolphins, but 37 of those came on one Raheem Mostert run.
Otherwise, Miami thwarted the 49ers' two-back offense throughout the game to create third-and-long opportunities. On third-and-7 or longer, New England is converting at only a 20.0 percent clip compared to 57.0 percent on third-and-6 or shorter.
Special Teams and Ball Security
Both the Patriots and Dolphins have top three special teams units according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (defensive-adjusted value over average) metric. The Patriots scored on a punt return and a blocked field goal return in the 45-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13.
New England also has a history of putting the clamps on rookie quarterbacks under Head Coach Bill Belichick. First-year signal-callers are just 5-20 against the Patriots over the last 21 seasons. Fortunately, for Miami, all five victories came away from Gillette Stadium. However, Belichick put together a road-game scheme that stumped Chargers rookie Justin Herbert to the tune of a season-worst 43.7 passer rating.
The Patriots have a plus-seven turnover margin in their six victories of 2020. In the seven losses, that number dips to negative-six.
This game features a battle between the NFL's top takeaway artists in cornerbacks Xavien Howard and J.C. Jackson. Howard has nine interceptions on 76 targets, one per every 8.4 pass targets. Jackson has seven picks on 57 targets, one every 8.14 pass targets – they also rank one and two in the league in that category.
Take What They Give You
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa took ownership for some mistakes in last week's loss.
"Offensively we didn't execute the way we should have, and I know a lot of that falls down on me with the leadership with these guys in the third quarter," Tagovailoa said postgame. "Not taking what the defense is giving me, just pretty much plain rookie mistakes and you can't do that against a Super Bowl-caliber team like the Chiefs."
This season, Tagovailoa is 76-of-95 with 617 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions on throws under 10 yards through the air. He's 42-of-74 against the blitz with 413 yards, six touchdowns, one interception and a 94.0 passer rating this season, per PFF.
New England blitzes at the ninth-lowest clip (24.0 percent) in the NFL, plays six defensive backs at the fifth-highest rate in the league (28.2 percent) and deploys more seven-defensive-back-packages (148 total) than any other team. For comparison, the Giants run what's called the dollar package (7 DBs) at the next-highest clip with 51 snaps form that personnel grouping.
Per PFF, no team runs more man coverage than the Patriots. By sending fewer rushers, New England can bracket and bait quarterbacks into more dangerous throws. With the importance of ball security in this game – and every game for that matter – patience can be a virtue for the Dolphins rookie.
The Patriots offense is tied for 26th in scoring (21.3 PPG), 24th in total offense (332.9 YPG), fifth in rushing (147.5 RYPG) and 29th in passing (185.4 PYPG).
Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels is in his 16th season with the Patriots overall and in Year 9 of his second stint with the team as Offensive Coordinator. Few teams have been able to match the flexibility and adaptability of the New England offense during McDaniels' tenure. This season, no team has more rushing attempts than the 427 of the Patriots. They also lead the league in snaps out of 21-personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs), which typically comes courtesy of fullback Jakob Johnson, who is second among NFL fullbacks with 314 snaps played.
Defensively, New England ranks seventh in scoring (21.5 PPG allowed), 10th in total defense (313.5 YPG), 23rd in rushing (124.0 RYPG) and eighth in passing defense (218.5 PYPG).
Despite blitzing just 24.0 percent of the defensive snaps (ninth-fewest in the NFL) the Patriots' 27.4 pressure rate is third-best in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference.
Miami leads the all-time series 56-54 (including playoffs) and the Dolphins are 38-18 at home against the Patriots.
Tagovailoa threw his first interception of the season last week, breaking a streak of 152 consecutive passes without a pick. It was the third-longest streak in Dolphins history. After the interception, Tagovailoa completed 19-of-31 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
Xavien Howard's next interception will be his 10th of the season, which would tie a franchise record that has stood since 1967 (cornerback Dick Westmoreland). The Dolphins entered Week 15 tied for the league-lead with 25 takeaways on the season and the NFL's best third-down defense allowing just 33.1 percent conversions.
We'll have the postgame recap story and Sunday spotlight available on MiamiDolphins.com Sunday evening along with Drive Time with Travis Wingfield available wherever you get your podcasts. John Congemi, as always, will join Travis to detail his three takeaways, which can also be found on MiamiDolphins.com Monday morning.