BOSTON (CBS) – The Patriots are the envy of many NFL teams right now, sitting pretty at 8-3 with the chance to clinch the AFC East this weekend down in Miami.
But as Tom Brady learned early in his career, Miami is no easy place to play. There was something about South Beach that got to Tom Terrific as he was tearing the rest of the NFL apart. Whether it be Jason Taylor looming on the defensive line or having a pass thrown from his backside picked off (or in one play’s case – both), Miami was to Brady what Florida ballots are to a presidential election.
So could this be a “trap game” for the Patriots?
Probably not. Brady’s terrible trend in Miami has shifted back in his favor. He is now 5-5 against the Dolphins on the road thanks to a 5-1 record in Miami since 2006 (adding Wes Welker to the mix in 2007 has done wonders as well). And given that fact Brady is having another near-perfect season, things should go the Patriots way come Sunday.
But … it is Miami. There is no other place where the phrase “any given Sunday” rings more true for Brady and the Patriots.
Here are four things to watch for in Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins tilt.
Another Rookie QB
For the third time this season, the Patriots will be going against a rookie quarterback. That used to be viewed as a bad thing, but with the way the secondary is playing as of late, Ryan Tannehill could be in for a long afternoon in the Miami sun.
Two weeks ago, No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck threw for 334 yards with two touchdowns against the Pats, but his three interceptions – two of which turned into New England touchdowns – sealed the Colts’ fate in a 59-24 loss. Earlier in the season, it was Russell Wilson who had the Pats secondary on their heels to the tune of 293 yards and three touchdowns – both season/career highs for Wilson.
Tannehill has been just as good as the other two at times, but is wildly inconsistent. He’s also in the midst of a bit of a slump, right as the Patriots secondary is molding into form.
The rookie QB has thrown six interceptions (to just two touchdowns) in the last three weeks, with the Dolphins losing two of those three games. Expect the Patriots to send a slew of different looks at Tannehill to throw him off guard, and more importantly, make quick decisions. He has the benefit of having his college system in place, and he can also beat teams with his legs – rushing for 33 yards in last week’s win over the Seahawks – but if the Patriots can force him into making quick decisions and throws he doesn’t want to make, the turnover barrage for the New England secondary should continue.
Stats-wise, it’s a bit of a down year for the Dolphins running back. He had a huge Week 2 against Oakland, rushing for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with 25 more yards on three receptions. But Bush hasn’t gone over 100 yards since that afternoon, and has just 490 rushing yards in his 10 other games.
But last season, Bush didn’t have much trouble in two games against the Patriots. He ran for 151 yards and added another 82 through the air. He is always a threat to break for an 80-yard score, so the Patriots defense will be on their heels whenever Bush is on the field. He’s a tough guy to bring down, so expect safeties Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Steve Gregory to play a big role in keeping Bush grounded, whether it be in the running or passing game.
Defensive Line Depth
When Chandler Jones left the field three weeks ago with an ankle injury, it was up to Jermaine Cunningham to fill the void. He did so nicely, recording eight tackles in two games against the Colts and Jets.
But now, Cunningham is joining Brandon Bolden on the suspension list, and the Patriots once again need a player to step up on the defensive line.
The Patriots will look for more from their already-steady line from the likes of Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich and Kyle Love. Wilfork is having his usual stellar season, and Love is coming along nicely next to him. Ninkovich has really come into his own after a slow start, and having his best season in the NFL.
But they can’t take Jones/Cunningham’s spot on the field, so that responsibility will fall on five-year veteran Trevor Scott, along with rookies Justin Francis and Jake Bequette.
Scott, who signed prior to the season after spending his first four years in Oakland, has seen limited action in nine of the Patriots 11 games this season, recording six tackles along the way.
While those numbers are extremely underwhelming when it comes to replacing Jones, or even Cunningham, none of that matters. For the Patriots, it’s all about “the next man up.” If Scott, or either of the rookies, go out and do their job the way they’re told in practice this week, the Patriots will be fine.
Hat And T-Shirt Day
Just in time for the holiday shopping season, there might be a new Patriots hat and t-shirt on the market after Sunday’s game. Not that “AFC East Champions” memorabilia sells all that well in these parts, but it’s one thing the Patriots can check off their 2012 “to do” list, along with clinching a playoff spot and a home playoff game.
Getting the division out of the way now will be important with home games against the Texans (11-1) and 49ers (10-2) looming.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub! Pregame coverage begins on 98.5 with Patriots Preview at 10 am, with Patriots GameDay on WBZ-TV at 11:30 am. Kickoff is at 1 pm, and after the game tun in to 98.5 for three full hours of post game coverage, and Patriots 5th Quarter on myTV38!