By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are escaping bitter cold and piles of snow at home in New England, as they’re flying south to sunny Florida to take on the Miami Dolphins this weekend. It’s not a vacation for the Pats, though, as a whole lot will be on the line when they take the field Sunday at 1 p.m.

For one, the 10-3 Patriots can claim the top spot in the AFC if they win out, but they still have the pesky 9-4 Bengals right on their tails, looking to claim one of those top two playoff spots, which comes with a first-round bye. The Patriots also know that with a win, they can clinch their division. While that is something that will happen eventually, the team never enjoys putting off those hat and T-shirt celebrations.

Here’s a look at what to watch for when the Pats and Dolphins square off on Sunday.

Life, Post-Gronk
The Patriots once again find themselves without Rob Gronkowski. While that is no doubt a huge loss, it’s not as if the team hasn’t played without him before. As Bill Belichick noted this week, “We played a lot more of this season without him than we have with him. Look, you hate to see what happened to Rob happen to Rob, but we’ve played most of the year without Rob in some capacity. That’s unfortunately where we are now, but that’s where we are now. It’s not anything that we haven’t dealt with during the year.”

With regard to this week, it’s clear that multiple players are going to have to step up to keep the offense going. Last week, it was Shane Vereen, who set franchise records for most receptions and receiving yards by a running back (12, 153). As defenses now zero in on trying to limit Vereen in the passing game, there will be some pressure on Matthew Mulligan to step up in the passing game. He did step up — literally — last week when he tried to leap over a defender, but the door is wide open for him to become a more regular receiving option for Tom Brady. It’s easily the biggest opportunity of the 28-year-0ld’s career.

“I only can be myself,” Mulligan said this week. “I have my own skill set. That’s what I do well and I just got to obviously continue to get better and do a little bit more. I can’t be Rob Gronkowski. I only can be Matt Mulligan.”

Newly re-acquired D.J. Williams might also get his chance at tight end, as well.

But Josh McDaniels won’t be picky, so long as someone is able to get open and catch the ball.

The Miami Monster
It’s a little-known fact that there is a miniature monster in the turf in Miami which comes out once a year to mess with Tom Brady.

That may or may not be true (it’s not true), but Brady has had his fair share of issues when playing in Miami. He’s been better in recent years, completing 69.3 percent of his passes for 14 TDs and 4 INTs while averaging 322.8 yards per game in his last five trips to Miami, where the Patriots are 4-1. But the perception that Brady struggles in Miami persists, largely because of his issues there for the early part of his career. Brady lost four of his first six games in Miami, where he completed just 58.1 percent of his passes for an average of 188.8-yard average, 9 TDs and 8 INTs. Four of those picks came in one game (one thrown while lying on his backside in that memorable loss in 2004), tying a career high.

Brady’s dominance over the Miami Monster took a slight step back last year, when he completed 24 of 40 passes for 238 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Might the Miami Monster creep back into Tom’s life?

Protecting Tom
Of course, much of what determines how well Brady will play is out of the quarterback’s hands. It’s the responsibility of the offensive line to keep Tom clean, and after an iffy showing last week against Cleveland, it won’t get any easier this Sunday.

The Dolphins rank fifth in the NFL with 40 sacks this season, led by defensive end Olivier Vernon’s 11.5 and linebacker Cameron Wake’s 7.5. Vernon is currently in the midst of a four-game streak of recording a sack, as he’s picked up seven sacks in the last month. Stopping him won’t be easy.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have allowed 36 sacks, which is 11th-most in the league. That includes four sacks last week against the Browns, and that number could have been higher if not for a few throwaways by Brady. It wasn’t a banner day in pass protection for the Patriots’ O-line, and they’ll simply have to be better this time around.

The Game Starts At 1 p.m.
This entry makes the list not so much for fans as much as it’s here for the team. It’s a reminder to the men who will suit up for New England that the game starts at 1 p.m., not 2 p.m., not 3:30 p.m., not 3:50 p.m. It’s at 1 p.m., which is when they should all start playing.

The reminder seems necessary after last week, when the Patriots entered their game knowing they had been having issues with coming out flat in the first half but nevertheless proceeded to head to the locker room at halftime trailing 6-0. They didn’t even wake up coming out of the half, as they got their first points on the board with 1:37 left in the third quarter.

They’ve been fortunate to be able to pull multiple rabbits out of hats in recent weeks, but that’s not a sustainable way to live. If they want to prove they’re a team that can do something come January, they’ll have to first prove they can build leads over inferior teams in December. That will begin — reminder — on Sunday at 1 p.m. Not a minute later.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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