Dolphins vs. Patriots NFL Week 15: Who Has The Edge?
Dolphins vs. Patriots: Who Has The Edge?
Back in Week 8, the Miami Dolphins had the New England Patriots right where they wanted them after the first 30 minutes of play. Up 17-3 and dominating on both sides of the ball, Miami looked destined to pick up its fourth win of the season.
Then the second half happened. New England went on a 24-0 run to end the game, picked off Ryan Tannehill twice, forced him to fumble once and sacked him six times. It was a devastating collapse for the Dolphins, who dropped below .500 a mere five weeks after beginning the year 3-0.
Seven weeks later the Dolphins have battled back and have finally re-emerged on the plus side of .500. While they've played a flawed brand of football for the majority of 2013, their resilience cannot be questioned.
Now, sitting at 7-6 and in ideal position to make a run at the team's first postseason berth in five years, the Dolphins will look to make things right against the team they couldn't finish against a month and a half ago.
It certainly won't be easy as the Patriots have only lost once in their last six games, but with tight end Rob Gronkowski out of the lineup after a devastating knee injury and the Patriots limping to two tightly contested wins in Weeks 13 and 14 over less-than-formidable competition, beating their division rival at home doesn't look to be too tall of a task for the Dolphins.
Let's take a look at which team has the edge in Week 15.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.
Dolphins' Pass Defense vs. Patriots' Passing Attack
In Week 8, the Dolphins' pass defense held quarterback Tom Brady to a season-low 116 passing yards. In the five games since, however, Brady has averaged 372 passing yards per contest, which, if averaged for the duration of a 16-game season would break the single-season record for passing yards with ease.
A lot of Brady's success stemmed from the return of Gronkowski. The fourth-year tight end had produced 592 receiving yards and four touchdowns in only six full games, after all. Obviously, the Dolphins won't be required to cover Gronkowski on Sunday afternoon. They will, however, have to account for a new threat.
Running back Shane Vereen was held out in Week 8 with an injury but returned to the lineup four weeks ago for New England. While Vereen only carried the ball three times this past Sunday, he has caught at least five passes in every game since his return. Against the Cleveland Browns in Week 14, Vereen caught a career-high 12 balls for 153 yards.
Vereen projects to have more success against a Dolphins' front seven that has struggled to cover running backs at times in 2013. Philip Wheeler, in particular, has been vulnerable when matched up with pass catchers out of the backfield. Only three other outside linebackers in the entire NFL currently have a worse coverage grade than Wheeler according to Pro Football Focus.
With two 100-yard receiving efforts in his past three games, Julian Edelman will be the Patriots' most difficult cover at receiver. He'll line up in the slot and on the outside, so Miami's cornerbacks, who have been solid this season, will share the responsibility of slowing him down.
Edge: New England
Dolphins' Rushing Attack vs. Patriots' Run Defense
The same running game that produced the lowest rushing total in team history earlier in the season is beginning to find its stride just in time for December weather. The Dolphins won't be forced to run the football more often because of wintry conditions in beautiful South Florida, but they will have the opportunity to continue exposing one of the league's worst run defenses on Sunday.
Without Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the Patriots have been susceptible on the ground for the better part of the season. Currently, only one other defense in the entire NFL is allowing more rushing yards per game than the 135.8 New England is conceding on average. That means running backs Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller should be in store for another productive afternoon, assuming offensive coordinator Mike Sherman remains consistent in his play-calling.
Thomas surpassed 100 yards rushing for only the second time as a pro this past Sunday, and Miller ran for 89 yards against the Patriots back in October. While Miller sustained a concussion in Week 14, reports have it that he should be cleared in time for Sunday's game. Miami must make a concerted effort to run the football down New England's throat and shouldn't deviate from that game plan.
Dolphins' Run Defense vs. Patriots' Rushing Attack
The Patriots have a very capable rushing attack but have failed to run for over 100 yards in two consecutive games. They'll likely make running the football a priority against the Dolphins, who have allowed 118.8 rushing yards per game this season.
With a stout defensive line Miami should field one of the league's stingiest run defenses, but given its leaky linebacker corps it doesn't. Although the Patriots don't have a clear-cut No. 1 back because of Stevan Ridley's ball-security issues, all four of their runners who have carried the ball at least 100 times average 4.3 yards per carry or higher.
New England ran for 152 yards against Miami during the first meeting. The second meeting will likely be more of the same unless the Dolphins' second line of defense can figure out a way to consistently fill running lanes and wrap up ball carriers.
Edge: New England
Dolphins' Passing Attack vs. Patriots' Pass Defense
Want to see some noticeable improvement from Tannehill? Over the past five games his quarterback rating is as follows: 84.3, 84.0, 86.4, 94.2 and 95.5. That steady climb had led to Tannehill quite possibly playing the best football of his young career. There would be no better way to cement that theory than shredding the New England secondary on Sunday afternoon.
After Case Keenum and Jason Campbell combined for 663 passing yards over the past two games throwing against the Patriots, Tannehill is certainly capable of continuing his success. Most notably for New England, the play of cornerback Aqib Talib has plummeted since he was shutting down receivers on a weekly basis earlier in the year.
Once a top-10 corner according to Pro Football Focus, Talib is now ranked 47th at the position by the site after a rough four-game stretch. Since returning from injury, Talib has been victimized for 336 yards in coverage. Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace will look to put up big numbers against him.
Most encouragingly for the Dolphins is the improvement of the offensive line since the two team's last meeting. The Dolphins gave up six sacks against the Patriots in Week 8. They've allowed three or less in every game but one since. If Miami can give Tannehill time on Sunday, he should be able to pick New England apart.
The discipline Bill Belichick instills in his team is usually manifested with mistake free special-teams play. New England currently ranks 4th in the NFL in special-teams efficiency by Pro Football Focus while Miami ranks 30th. Slowing down Brady and scoring enough points to beat him is difficult enough as is. Blunders in the third phase of the game would likely be too much to overcome for the Dolphins.
Rookie kicker Caleb Sturgis can't afford any more missed field goals, Marcus Thigpen must make wise decisions as a return man and the Dolphins need to avoid costly holding or blocking in the back penalties that forfeit opportunistic field position. Punter Brandon Fields has seemingly held the special teams together all season. He'll need help to give Miami the edge on Sunday.
Edge: New England