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Miami Dolphins vs New England Patriots: 5 Must-Watch Matchups

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Dolphins vs. Patriots: 5 Must-Watch Matchups

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The Miami Dolphins are new to this. Well, at least most of their current players. But they'll experience their third consecutive game of meaningful December football on Sunday when the New England Patriots come to town.

Over the past four years, Miami has been relegated to seemingly meaningless action down the stretch with unlikely or zero playoff hopes. Through 14 weeks in 2013, however, the Dolphins are a front-runner to claim the AFC's sixth playoff seed.

Relevancy during the final month of the NFL's regular season isn't anything to be content with for the Dolphins, but it is something for their fans to enjoy nonetheless. But like the stakes, heartbreak is amplified in December. If the Dolphins don't earn the AFC's second wild-card spot at the conclusion of the month, Miami fans will undoubtedly be heartbroken and the 2013 season will be deemed a failure.

The team doesn't control their own postseason destiny, so there won't be much room for error in the final three games. The Dolphins could do themselves a huge favor by picking up a home victory on Sunday against the Patriots. Doing so would give them an excellent opportunity to run the table with two winnable games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets slated for Weeks 16 and Week 17.

Coach Joe Philbin has undoubtedly instructed his players to employ a one-game-at-time mentality, though. And there might not be a bigger game for the Dolphins this season than Sunday's showdown with the AFC-East leading Patriots.

Here are five must-watch matchups for Sunday's game.

Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.

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5. Mike Wallace vs. Aqib Talib

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Without cornerback Aqib Talib, the Patriots were able to hold Mike Wallace to a mere three catches for 41 yards back in October. Wallace is playing much better than he was at that point in the season, however, and projects to be a handful for the struggling Talib on Sunday.

Before his injury, Talib was playing like one of the top cornerbacks in the entire league. Since his return, his ability to shut down opposing receivers hasn't been what it once was. During the first six games, Talib only allowed 186 yards and one touchdown in coverage. In the four games since his return, he's given up 336 yards and two touchdowns.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill should look to take advantage of this matchup on Sunday, and maybe even connect on a deep ball or two.

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4. Philip Wheeler vs. Shane Vereen

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The Dolphins won't have to account for tight end Rob Gronkowski this week, but with Bill Belichick, someone always steps up to answer the call. That someone appears to be running back Shane Vereen.

Vereen might not be the back who will expose the Dolphins' leaky run defense on Sunday, but he does have the ability to abuse linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, catching passes out of the backfield. New England will undoubtedly look to get Vereen matched up with Wheeler, in particular, whenever possible.

Vereen produced 12 catches for 153 yards and a touchdown last week and could be in store for another eye-popping stat line if Wheeler is primarily responsible for containing him. Wheeler currently has the fourth worst coverage grade for a 4-3 outside linebacker in the entire NFL according to Pro Football Focus.

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3. Bryant McKinnie vs. Chandler Jones

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The Dolphins gave up a season-high six sacks in Week 8 against the Patriots, but none of them were to defensive end Chandler Jones. Still, with 10.5 sacks on the season, keeping Jones away from Tannehill should be priority No. 1 for the Dolphins' offensive line.

Left tackle Bryant McKinnie will wear that responsibility. Although McKinnie is far from an upper echelon blindside protector and nothing more than a stop-gap solution until Miami can find a younger option, he's been a key ingredient to the Dolphins' improved ability to keep Tannehill upright.

McKinnie has only given up three sacks in seven games with Miami, which is quite the improvement from the seven sacks former starting left tackle Jonathan Martin allowed in his seven starts.

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2. Brent Grimes vs. Julian Edelman

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It will be interesting to see how the Dolphins choose to cover wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is clearly New England's go-to pass catcher now with Gronkowski out for the year. If they don't choose to shadow him with No. 1 cornerback Brent Grimes, Nolan Carroll and Jimmy Wilson will also see some coverage snaps against Tom Brady's top target, as the Patriots move Edelman to both perimeters and into the slot.

The wise move would probably be sticking Grimes on him throughout, though. Grimes has taken on the task of sticking with the opposition's go-to receiver several times this season with much success. According to Pro Football Focus, Grimes is graded as the No. 4 overall cornerback and leads the entire NFL with 17 combined interceptions and pass breakups.

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1. Cameron Wake vs. Marcus Cannon

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Defensive end Cameron Wake didn't look to be 100 percent when the Dolphins and Patriots squared off in Week 8, and only played 34 of the team's 68 defensive snaps. New England won't have that luxury on Sunday. Wake appears have fully recovered from the sprained MCL that slowed him down for over a month earlier in the season.

This past Sunday in Pittsburgh, Wake had one of his most impactful performances of 2013, registering two sacks, a forced fumble, two quarterback hits, and three hurries according to Pro Football Focus. He'll have the opportunity to begin building a late-season surge against the Patriots on Sunday.

Right tackle Marcus Cannon has returned to practice this week for New England after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. If he plays, the Patriots won't have to trust Will Svitek to keep Brady clean. Svitek gave up two sacks in Week 14, so the return of Cannon will be welcomed relief for New England.

Cannon is ranked 38th of 79 offensive tackles this season by Pro Football Focus. That grade could drop after facing a pass rusher of Wake's caliber on Sunday, however, especially if he isn't 100 percent.