Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 12/13/13

This Sunday at 1PM EST, the New England Patriots travel to Miami to take on Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins, with a chance to clinch the AFC East. The game will be shown on CBS, with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms providing commentary. There are two things that are glaringly important about last week’s win over the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots played a really bad game of football for about three quarters. The Patriots can pull a win out of their collective asses better than any team in the NFL That second part will be of great importance come playoff time. Stephen Gostkowski (who is semi-quietly having one of the great kicking seasons, and has absolutely stepped out of Vinatieri’s shadow for good) played that onside kick perfectly. Shane Vereen is an invaluable offensive weapon out of the backfield, downright explosive. And I don’t care if it was a questionable PI call at the end of the game, Tom Brady put that ball where only Boyce could catch it (he almost did catch it) or so a corner would panic and hold him. The fourth quarter is New England’s zone, and they’ve clawed themselves back into every game. It’s no mistake that all three of their losses came down to the last plays. That being said, my God are they making it hard on themselves. The defense was absolutely sloppy in coverage, and Jason Campbell looked ten times the quarterback he actually is. This is the second straight game where the Patriots have almost lost to a bottom-ten team, with breakdowns at ever facet of the offense and defense (except running game, more on that later). Which is why this game makes me anxious. Houston and Cleveland were playing for pride, nothing else. The Dolphins are playing for survival, to keep their playoff hopes alive. Oh and one more important thing. 3. Rob Gronkowski is out for the season. Yup, not good. Let’s take a closer look:   Key Matchup: Chandler Jones vs. Bryant McKinnie Ryan Tannehill is undoubtedly a better QB now than he was the last time the Patriots saw him in Week 8, and his Dolphins are 4-2 since then, but he’s still thrown an interception in 5 straight games. You’d think that I’d put Aqib Talib here then, that the Patriots will need to rely on some good old-fashioned ball-hawking to pull out a win. But there’s one way to put Tannehill off his game. And that’s to hit him. Hard and often. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are both surprisingly effective pass rushers at the tackle position. Rob Ninkovich is starting to look last year’s Ninkovich (fantastic news for Pats fans). But the one bonafide game-changer on the Pats’ defensive line is Chandler Jones. I went on and on about Jones’ virtues in last week’s column, but the basic gist is that he’s a tremendous athlete, and has stepped up admirably in the wake of Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork going down with injuries. Jones hasn’t had a sack since the game against Denver, but even when he doesn’t get a sack, the attention O-lines have to pay to him frees up opportunities for his teammates. This week he faces up against Dolphins’ left tackle Bryant McKinnie. In the wake of the Martin/Incognito scandal, the Dolphins’ offensive line has somehow not completely imploded, and a big reason is the veteran presence of McKinnie. Jones was held sackless in the Week 8 game against McKinnie, and the Dolphins will hope to contain the 23-year old end. But if the Patriots can put pressure on Tannehill, they can force turnovers and ride the dink and dunk game to victory.   3 Things To Watch How will the Pats react to Gronk’s loss? Alright, so obviously the Patriots’ offense is decimated by the loss of Gronkowski. He was a huge difference-maker, a consistent big-play threat, and if anything else his presence gave the young Patriots’ offense a boost in confidence. He’s a super-talented player, and he makes everyone around him better. But…every pundit and every expert has written a eulogy for the Patriots season. New England has no chance of making it to the Super Bowl, will limp their way to the playoffs before making a graceful exit, and waiting for next year. You think Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, two of the most over-competitive assholes in sports history, aren’t seeing this? You think that they’re content with being written off? Just something to think about.   2. Does Stevan Ridley’s workload go up? Van Riddles had a nice reintroduction to the Pats’ offense last week, rushing eight times for 35 yards, good for 4.4yds/att. He had 14 rushes for 79 yards and a touchdown in the Week 8 game against Miami. Obviously there were never any questions about his productivity or explosiveness, but his ball security. But last week he really looked solid, not timid or nervous, but pounding the ball up the middle, and taking several big hits on the chin. That’s not to say that Ridley should immediately be given lead-back carries. But the Patriots offense works best with LeGarrette Blount (who’s really turning things around after a slow start) as a brutal change-of-pace back, Shane Vereen as a receiving back, and Stevan Ridley as the normal lead-back. Belichick and McDaniels will most likely go for a rotation like they did against Cleveland, which may prove to be very effective against this Dolphins’ run defense.   3. Can the tiny dudes step it up? Alright so “tiny” isn’t exactly fair. But when you subtract the 6-6 Gronkowski, and with the 6-3 Aaron Dobson expected to miss this week’s game, the Patriots’ receivers are definitely not the tallest group. Kenbrell Thompkins, at 6-1, is now the tallest, and Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce, and Austin Collie will be Brady’s other targets. What does that spell for the Patriots? It’s dink and dunk time baby! To be sure all of the receivers (including Vereen) all have big play potential, and all have delivered this season in that respect. But with no stereotypical “X” receiver, look for Brady to go into 4-receiver sets and tear into the middle of the Miami defense, utilizing this receiving group’s tremendous quickness.   Prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 20 I really do think that Brady and Belichick want to make a statement here. They have a chance to lock up the AFC East against a division rival, with their star tight end out for the season, and after two embarrassing new losses against terrible teams. The Dolphins are trying to survive and will bring their A-game, but my guess is New England will as well. Ryan Tannehill is more likely to turn the ball over than Brady, and the improving Pats’ secondary will be happy to oblige. It may be ugly (it’s fair to pencil in another slow start for the New England) but they’ll pull it out.   Also this week, here is new Patriots’ writer Tyler Brochhagen’s prediction: As if Miami needed any extra motivation when hosting the Patriots, the fact that they are battling for a playoff birth will have the Dolphins ready to go on Sunday. However, the Patriots have seen their opening to go out and get the #1 seed in the playoffs with Denver losing their third game of the season. Despite losing Gronkowski for the season, the Patriots will do what they do and win 27-24.

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