By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We’re a pretty spoiled bunch around here.
The Patriots have won so many games under Bill Belichick in the past 15 years that you practically need to engage in some kind of witchcraft or conduct a series of crackpot experiments to figure out how they could possibly lose against certain teams. Most of their 2016 opponents present the same conundrum. Last week, however, it was actually harder to figure out how the Patriots would win – but so many things went right, the Patriots’ win over Arizona reaffirmed the force choke Darth Belichick has over the rest of the coaches in the league.
So for the Patriots, we’re back to strapping on the tinfoil hats and firing off a Doomsday Scenario.
That being said … how psychotic would you have sounded if you said last week that the Patriots would: 1) Score a long touchdown through the air on Jimmy Garoppolo’s first drive; 2) Hold Carson Palmer to just 271 passing yards, only seven more than Garoppolo; and 3) Gain more total yards than the Cardinals without Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski, and do all that on the road to escape with a win?
You’d sound just as silly if you said on Friday that the Miami Dolphins would go into Foxboro on Sunday and: 1) Win the coaching battle; 2) Keep the Patriots defense on the field all day; and 3) Shut down Julian Edelman. However, that’s what Miami will need to do to pull off an upset win over the Patriots – and they almost did just that against the Seattle Seahawks.
These things may sound crazy and a Patriots loss would certainly be a “perfect storm” kind of situation in this spot, but like the Patriots on the road in primetime, no one should be totally counted out in the NFL on the proverbial “Any Given Sunday.”
Let’s go over the four things that would combine to create the worst-case scenario for the Patriots on Sunday. If these things gallop into Gillette Stadium like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse … you better start stocking up on provisions. Here’s what will need to happen for the Dolphins to win …
Dolphins head coach Adam Gase is the real deal. It’s easy to scoff at the 38-year-old Gase as yet another uppity young buck who’s about to be taken to the woodshed by Chessmaster Bill, but he showed a little something in his debut as Dolphins head coach in Seattle.
Miami ultimately lost 12-10 in Seattle, but to go into one of the hardest places in the league against a full-strength Seattle offense, and hold them to just 12 points, is hugely impressive. There HAS to be some credit to the Dolphins coaching staff for at least having the team ready to put up a valiant fight against the Seahawks, who may still be the favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 51.
If Miami can keep it close in Seattle, it’s reasonable to say they could pull off the same thing in Foxboro. Belichick has faced Gase’s offense before, but never with Gase as the head coach. The Dolphins head coach doesn’t seem like someone who will coach scared, which could make for some very entertaining play-calling on Sunday.
If Gase puts up a surprising coaching and game-planning effort, the Patriots could be in trouble. But he also needs this to happen …
The Patriots can’t cover Jarvis Landry. The third-year receiver out of LSU is as dynamic as it gets in the league at the slot receiver position. At 6 feet and 205 pounds, he’s rather large for a slot guy. He is a major factor in the possession game and on special teams. If the Patriots let him beat them, it could be a long afternoon in Foxboro.
While Landry probably qualifies as the one guy Belichick has keyed his defense on stopping, the Patriots don’t necessarily have ideal personnel in the secondary to cover him. The roles are not quite set at the Nickel cornerback spot and starters Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are better suited on the outside.
The Patriots will need to get creative to contain Landry – maybe they’ll put Jamie Collins on him? – and if anyone can pull it off it’s Belichick, but Landry will cause major problems if he can consistently move the chains for the Dolphins offense.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball …
The Patriots can’t block Ndamukong Suh. This might happen anyway, but if the Dolphins are going to pull off the upset they are going to absolutely need Suh to disrupt the Patriots in the trenches. He’s going to be a handful against right tackle Marcus Cannon and whoever the hell the Patriots roll out there at right guard, and his mere presence could speed up Jimmy Garoppolo’s internal clock and ultimately derail the Patriots offense entirely.
There’s no doubt that the Patriots will continue to emphasize quick passes on offense, which could mitigate any damage caused by Suh at the line of scrimmage. It worked in Arizona, but Denver proved last season that you can only cover up your deficiencies on the offensive line for so long. Foxboro will be far easier for the Patriots to play in than Denver, but Suh is still Suh, regardless of location.
If the Patriots can’t block Suh long enough to give Garoppolo time to throw, and/or if Suh’s disruptiveness opens things up more for his teammates, it will be a major issue on Sunday.
But despite all this, Miami STILL won’t pull off the win unless …
The Dolphins bottle up Julian Edelman in coverage. Rob Gronkowski may be the most dynamic and un-coverable weapon in the Patriots’ offensive arsenal, but Edelman is the engine that makes the offense hum, as the slot receiver tends to be in New England. If he can’t consistently make catches that move the chains or create short-yardage situations for the Patriots, the offense would be in big trouble, even with Gronkowski on the field.
I did, however, list Edelman as the number-one matchup nightmare against the Dolphins secondary, and for good reason: their most experienced corner is Byron Maxwell, who was abysmal last season with the Eagles and carried his struggles over to Miami last week. The Dolphins do have one of the league’s better safety duos with veterans Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus, who were bright spots in the secondary against Seattle last week. One of them could make life harder for Edelman if brought down low to cover him, and if that happens, they could really slow things down for the Patriots.
This game could be won in the secondary, with each team’s top receiving option being the two hardest skill players to prepare for (assuming Gronk doesn’t play).
If Landry goes off while Edelman gets held down, that could be the combination of factors that swings the game in Miami’s favor.
The Final Judgment
In summary … If the Dolphins can put up a surprisingly good fight in the coaching/game-planning cat & mouse game, get consistent pressure from Suh, shut down Edelman, and get big-time production out of Landry, they will have a good chance of upsetting the Patriots. Don’t laugh – once again, Miami just went into Seattle and came within a dropped touchdown of knocking off the Seahawks.
In this sneaky-important division battle, the Patriots sneaky-need to be on top of their game to avoid a letdown after the euphoria of upsetting the Cardinals in Week 1. If they let all of the aforementioned things happen … you could be breaking glass in case of emergency.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.