Let the Gronkowski-less era begin -- or, in this case, re-begin.
The New England Patriots season isn't over, but the deck just got stacked against them, and their journey begins in earnest on Sunday.
With a win, the Patriots could lock up their fifth straight AFC East title and 10th in the past 11 years. The Miami Dolphins aren't to be counted out, though; they always give the Patriots a tough game, and even tougher at home.
The Dolphins were the third victim of Tom Brady's late-game magic, but that has nothing to do with this game -- they'll watch the tape and search for tendencies, but this game is being played in completely different circumstances, not the least of which being the Patriots' lack of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Here's a closer look at what lies ahead in the Dolphins.
How they got here: When we last saw the Dolphins, they were on the tail end of a four-game losing skid. Since then, they've gone 4-2 with big wins over the Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. Much like the Patriots, the Dolphins are proving they can win close ones; five of the team's seven wins came by six or fewer points. The Dolphins finally picked up their first division win of the season in a 23-3 thrashing of the Jets, during which Rex Ryan benched quarterback Geno Smith in favor of backup Matt Simms.
Key cog, offense -- Charles Clay, TE: Talked about wide receiver Brian Hartline in the previous scouting report, and he remains an important player on the offense (five straight games with five receptions or more is tied for the third-longest streak in Dolphins history), but Charles Clay has made his case as a key player in the offense, as well. He has 60 receptions for 678 yards and six touchdowns -- his career-highs before this year were 18 receptions, 233 yards and three touchdowns. He is a player that the Dolphins like to move around, lining him up at fullback, tight end and slot receiver. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he can be hard to match up with physically. The Patriots have had some problems covering tight ends this season, with linebacker Jamie Collins being caught out of position on a couple occasions, including a late touchdown by Browns tight end Jordan Cameron this past week.
Key cog, defense -- Olivier Vernon, DE: Among the group of defensive ends, Olivier Vernon shouldn't be the one that stands out; Cameron Wake is the star, Dion Jordan is the high draft pick, but Vernon is enjoying a breakout season and has more sacks than both of them combined. His 11.5 sacks lead the team. His explosive burst off the line has given him a strong foundation as a pass-rusher, but he has a diverse game with some nifty moves, incredibly active hands and a motor that just doesn't quit. His weakness is against the run; although he's improved at setting the edge, he can be moved off the ball at times.
X factor -- Daniel Thomas, RB: Thomas stepped in for the concussed Lamar Miller and battled through an ankle injury to rush for 104 yards on 16 carries. His season and career to this point have been underwhelming, but he could be the feature back against the Patriots. At 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds, Thomas doesn't have great burst, but he is primarily a short-yardage back doing the bulk of his damage between the tackles. He averages 3.7 YPA over the first three years of his career; that's the fourth-lowest of any back since 2011 with over 250 carries. He had nine carries for 47 yards in the Week 7 game against the Patriots.
Stats and notes:
- Notable injuries: After leaving the Steelers game with a concussion, Miller will have to pass the NFL's concussion protocol if he is to play against New England. Tackle Jonathan Martin was still with the team in the last meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins, but has since been placed on the non-football illness list. Wide receiver Brandon Gibson injured his knee in that game, and is done for the season.
- Prior to Week 14, the Dolphins were the only NFL team that hadn't scored more than 27 points in a game; they finally broke that drought in a 34-28 win over the Steelers. The 34 points were the second-most for the Dolphins under Tannehill (35 vs. the Oakland Raiders in Week 2 of the 2012 season).
- One more player to watch is kicker Caleb Sturgis. The rookie made the first 10 field goal tries of his career, but has missed at least one field goal in each of the past three games and seven of the past nine games. He missed two field goals the last time the Patriots faced the Dolphins. Four of his eight misses have come from 50-plus yards. Either the Patriots, Dolphins or both have been involved in a one-possession game in each of the past six weeks; a missed field goal could have a big impact on the outcome.
- The Dolphins have used 153 different offensive personnel combinations -- that sounds like a lot, but it's the seventh-fewest in the league. Defensively, they're up to 206 different combinations, which ranks 13th in the league. That's a result not only of the Dolphins' relative health on both sides of the ball, but also their desire to play their 11 best players all the time, rather than try to create confusion and win matchups through scheme.
- Armando Salguero of The Miami Herald reports that owner Stephen Ross has given general manager Jeff Ireland assurances that he is safe in his job for the time being.
- According to Andrew Abramson of the Palm Beach Post, the Dolphins don't want Tannehill to be a running quarterback.
- Omar Kelly of the Sun-Sentinel says that the most important thing for the Dolphins right now is to finish strong and make the playoffs.
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