Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats looking for quicker start against Miami
When these same two teams met seven Sundays ago, the plot unfolded in a way that more or less previewed what the next couple of months would be like for New England. The Patriots fell behind early, this time going to the half down 17-3 to the Dolphins; they rallied in the third quarter to get themselves back in it; then eventually they won the game, 27-17.
Based on that, coming up with a plan of attack for today's rematch at Sun Life Stadium would seem to be simple: Just replicate the strategies that worked to turn things around after halftime on that October afternoon.
Except it's not that simple. Because - despite what the score ultimately suggested - the Patriots never really got rolling that day. And thus there's not a lot for them to draw on from that game with the expectation that it'll work again.
For instance, the Patriots netted just 100 passing yards in that game, which is their lowest total in a Tom Brady start since 2006. They gained an average of just 4 yards per pass attempt. And while they ran the ball effectively, they needed 37 carries to accumulate 152 yards because they barely eclipsed 3 yards per haul on the 35 attempts left after a couple of long gainers are removed.
Yes, they scored 27 points in the second half, though en route to that explosion they didn't convert a single third down (0-for-5; 2-for-10 overall). Defensively they didn't do a particularly great job getting off the field on that down, either, allowing Miami to move the chains on eight of 17 opportunities over the course of play, and forcing only one series to go three-and-out after the first drive of the game.
Rather, the Patriots took advantage of Dolphin mistakes. Among the plays that ended Miami's seven second-half possessions were two missed field goals, two interceptions and a fumble, and those mistakes afforded New England both momentum and field position - both of which account for the Pats' ability to score 17 points in the third quarter despite holding the ball for just 6:41 of the period, and not sustaining any drive for longer than 2:16. And this was all with Rob Gronkowski.
If there's anything the Patriots can take from that game it is their ability to overwhelm the Dolphins and Ryan Tannehill. They sacked the second-year quarterback six times, and most noteworthy about that achievement is that only two came from defensive linemen - because it indicates that a typically conservative unit had success blitzing, never more than on cornerback Logan Ryan's third-quarter strip sack.
The Dolphins line has done a better job of protecting Tannehill as it had adjusted to playing without Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and as the spotlight of the bullying scandal involving those two has somewhat softened, though the Pats are still likely to try and recreate the heat they were able to put under the cleats of a QB who's been sacked more than anyone this season (47 times). If they can, and he reacts like he did seven weeks ago, it's reasonable to expect that the results could be similar.
Beyond that, though, the Patriots can't expect to glean much from that game that'll give them an advantage in this one. And that makes a tough contest - against a 7-6 team playing for its season - all the tougher.
"There's nothing easy about playing them," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "They make you earn everything you get. They're well coached, they're fundamentally sound and they're tough."
OVERRATED: Cameron Wake. He's a good player, but this year - and against the Patriots in Week 8 - he has hardly been the Dolphins most disruptive defender. At Gillette Stadium he had only one solo tackle and one assist, and didn't even sniff Brady; and for the year his 7.5 sacks are respectable, but trail Olivier Vernon's 11.5 for the team lead. Vernon, coming off the edge opposite Wake, might be the top priority of the Pats' pass protection today.
UNDERRATED: The vitality of the AFC East race. Last week there was a chance the Patriots could be this season's first team to clinch its division championship. It would've happened had the Dolphins lost to the Steelers. However, by beating Pittsburgh, Miami stayed alive - and injected some plausible doubt into the race. If the Dolphins beat the Patriots today, then win at Buffalo next week while New England loses at Baltimore, the East crown would come down to Week 17, when the Pats host the Bills and the Fins welcome the Jets. Miami would win the tiebreaker if both teams finish 10-6.
KEEP AN EYE ON...: Charles Clay. The Dolphins will use their tight end in a variety of ways, and he's dangerous in all of them. After getting to the end zone twice last week he's the team's leading scorer with seven total touchdowns, he has 60 catches on the season, and he's been targeted by Tannehill 10 times in each of the past two tilts. Coverage is hardly the strength of the Pats' linebacking corps, so they might be tempted to use a safety on Clay - though that could create opportunities for Mike Wallace or Brian Hartline over the top. How the Pats decide to cover the tight end bears watching.
KEY MATCHUP: Shane Vereen vs. Miami's linebackers. Already important, the Pats' multi-purpose back figures to become downright vital to Brady's attack withGronkowskidone for the year, though the Dolphins' personnel appears equipped to mitigate his impact this afternoon. Miami linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe are both capable in coverage, combining to defend 12 and intercept two passes this season, and could cripple the Patriots passing game if they succeed in taking Vereen away.
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Dolphins' record is 1-3 in games during which its defense has yielded less than 270 yards from scrimmage. Conversely, Miami is 4-1 in the games its defense has surrendered at least 400 yards.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.