When the Patriots run
One group to keep an eye on is New England’s offensive line, which is coming off its worst showing of the season. This normally rambunctious group of head bangers lacked its usual exuberance and energy and was outplayed and outmuscled by the upstart Jaguars. It’s a safe bet a better effort is in the offing. Look for leader Logan Mankins (grizzled veteran has been dealing with nagging injuries for two years) to set the tone. The lackluster line play didn’t affect Stevan Ridley. The high-energy tailback ran hard and made the most of the limited space he was given. The 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pounder is a very decisive runner who always keeps his legs churning. He has both deceptive speed and power, and will break his share of tackles. Ridley always gives second and third efforts. Diminutive Danny Woodhead continues to pump life into this offense. The 5-8 scatback has excellent vision, runs low, and changes directions and pace fluidly. Both Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden have shown flashes but neither is adept at blocking, and if you can’t keep defenders off Tom Brady’s back, you’re not going to get many snaps. Titanic tackles Paul Soliai (6-4, 345) and Randy Starks (6-3, 305) anchor the Miami run defense. They have the strength to stun and tie up blockers as heat-seeking linebackers Karlos Dansby (he’s quick and rangy) and Kevin Burnett (he’s fast and tough) lower the boom on ball carriers.
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 134.5 (eighth)
Miami defense: 104.5 (10th)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady took a physical beating from the Jaguars and responded by delivering a verbal beating to his teammates in the aftermath of the season’s ugliest win. Brady will be on a mission Sunday as he tries to fine-tune the offense for the playoffs. He will face plenty of pressure — particularly from the destructive force that goes by the name of Cameron Wake. The 6-foot-3-inch, 258-pound end explodes off the edge and will employ a variety of moves to beat blockers and inflict pain. If towering tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer turn in performances similar to last week, Wake will put up career numbers. Brady is at his best when scanning and firing quickly. It helps to have Wes Welker — who bolts out of the slot position, gets open quickly, and snares almost everything thrown to him. Deion Branch isn’t as quick as he used to be, but his knowledge of the offense is invaluable. Brandon Lloyd has had focus issues. His only true threat to stretch the field, Brady most keep Lloyd engaged from the get-go. Aaron Hernandez is still battling a balky ankle. He is normally a nightmare matchup but is lacking his trademark explosiveness. Danny Woodhead is a gifted receiver and can be a demon in space. In the Miami secondary, cornerback Sean Smith has excellent mirror skills, while safeties Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones provide good support.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 292.4 (fourth)
Miami defense: 246.5 (25th)
When the Dolphins run
Reggie Bush has put together a second straight solid season in Miami. The 6-foot, 203-pounder already has a career-high 219 carries and is just 40 yards shy of posting back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns after never cracking 600 in five seasons in New Orleans. Bush has tremendous body control and quickness. He can be elusive and will find and exploit cutback lanes. He has impressive acceleration in the open field. Despite his lack of bulk, Bush isn’t shy about banging inside, but he lacks the strength to consistently break tackles and is more effective attacking the edges, where he is still a home run threat. Rookie Lamar Miller (5 feet 10 inches, 218 pounds) has excellent size, speed, and toughness. He flashes an explosive first step, will burst through seams, and welcomes contact. He lacks consistency, however, and doesn’t always give maximum effort. Massive center Mike Pouncey (6-5, 303) is agile and strong and always plays to the whistle. Left guard Richie Incognito (6-3, 319) is a fierce blocker with a nasty disposition. Right guard John Jerry (6-5, 345) has size but plays stiff and slow. Vince Wilfork’s size, strength, and smarts make him a tough matchup for anyone one on one. Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love have been overachievers. Athletic and instinctive monster Jerod Mayo leads a linebacking crew that clearly missed Brandon Spikes’s energy and playmaking last week.
Rushing yards per game
Miami offense: 117.0 (13th)
New England defense: 105.5 (12th)
When the Dolphins pass
Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill continues to improve and impress as he gets more comfortable running a pro set offense (he spent his college days living out of the shotgun at Texas A&M). The lanky, 6-foot-4-inch, 222-pounder is more athletic than he looks; he will use his legs to extend plays and rush the ball. Tannehill is making better decisions and is taking better care of the football lately (he has 12 picks this year, but zero in December). He has taken some big hits (28 sacks) but appears resilient, and he generally bounces right back up. Tannehill has a big arm but hasn’t been able to show it off because Miami lacks a legitimate deep guy. Brian Hartline (6-2, 199) is a classic possession receiver. He has good size and strong hands but he won’t give you a lot after the catch and is dinged up a lot. Top target Davone Bess is out with a back injury, so that will hurt. Tight end Anthony Fasano (6-4, 255) has good size and reliable hands. He is at his best in the red zone. Reggie Bush might just be the best receiver on the roster. He has the versatility to line up everywhere (backfield, slot, perimeter), runs solid routes, catches passes without breaking stride, and will give defenders fits in space. New England’s secondary continues to give up far too many plays and yards but this group also has a knack for making big plays at big moments.
Passing yards per game
Miami offense: 198.2 (26th)
New England defense: 275.5 (29th)
Dolphins’ key player: Ryan Tannehill
The first-round pick has had a decent December and played pretty well against the Patriots earlier this month in balmy Miami Gardens. But a late-season game in cold and raw Foxborough can be quite a different story.
How he beats you: With a strong arm and surprising athleticism. At 6 feet 4 inches, 222 pounds, Tannehill looks the part of the prototypical pocket passer, but the former college gunslinger has quick feet and deceptive speed and will make yards with his legs.
How to shut him down: By confusing him. His recognition skills have improved but he’s still young and hasn’t seen it all yet. Disguise the coverages and throw in a few new wrinkles, and this defense is bound to force a mistake or two.
DOLPHINS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. His Reggie-ness: This might be Reggie Bush’s final game as a Dolphin. So give him many, many touches and let him move the ball and keep it away from Tom Brady.
2. Let my Cameron go: Send Cameron Wake on every snap. He’s at his best moving forward, so let him stunt, spin, and bull his way into the pocket and wreak havoc.
3. Rough stuff: Wes Welker is Tom Brady’s safety blanket. So belt him at the line and force the Patriots QB to go to his other weapons — all of whom appear banged up.
PATRIOTS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Bubble boy: Danny Woodhead has been on fire lately. He is at his best in space, so line him up outside and hit him with quick screens so he can slip and slide his way through the defense.
2. Block party: The protection was horrendous last week. It’s time to get back to basics, put helmets on helmets, and make sure The Franchise isn’t battered.
3. Pressure cooker: Pass rushers Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones were very good against the Jaguars. They have to continue to bring the heat against upstart Ryan Tannehill.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 16