By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The end of the regular season is here, and we are oh-so-close to the real season getting underway in the NFL.
But first we have to get through a mixed pack of 16 games that are either completely meaningless or extremely important, and luckily, Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins tilt in Miami is leaning more towards the latter.
The No. 1 seed in the AFC is on the line for the Patriots, while playoff seeding is at stake for the Dolphins. Both teams will want this win, and while the Pats can still clinch that top spot in the conference with an Oakland loss to Denver, they’d be better served not to repeat last season’s Week 17 disaster in Miami.
So while you shake out the cobwebs from your New Year’s Eve fun, here’s what to watch for when the Pats head to South Beach for their regular season finale.
A Bigger Workload For Michael Floyd
With Malcolm Mitchell unlikely to play, newcomer Michael Floyd should be in line for an increased workload against the Dolphins. The receiver made his debut last week against the Jets, playing 16 of his 18 snaps in the second half, and finished the game with a six-yard reception on two targets.
All of those numbers should go up as the Patriots try to work him into the offense, and Tom Brady tries to get more familiar with his newest receiver. Floyd has been putting in extra work with third-string QB Jacoby Brissett, and it would be nice to see him get some extra play on Sunday rather than risk an injury to New England’s “healthy” receivers.
Rushing To The Postseason
Hopefully the Patriots don’t come out with a similar game plan to last year’s regular season finale in Miami, when they ran the ball on 10 of their first 11 plays with Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a LeGarrette Blount-heavy afternoon, with Miami’s defense ranked 30th in the NFL against the run. Blount is having a career year with 1,110 rushing yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns.
And with Matt Moore under center for Miami, they’ll likely lean on their talented running back Jay Ajayi, who has eight touchdowns of his own to go with 1,213 yards on the ground. He’s averaging 86.6 yards per game, good for fourth in the NFL, and five yards per carry, which is fifth-best in the league.
Ajayi has three 200-yard games this season, but unless the Patriots mail it in on Sunday, he likely won’t come close to that total. The Patriots defense is giving up just 89.5 rushing yards per game (some of that has to do with the fact they jump out to big leads and teams have to abandon the run) and they haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in over a calendar year (Week 12 of last season when C.J. Anderson ran for 113 yards for the Broncos). He’ll also have a tough time adding to his touchdown total, with the Patriots keeping opponents out of the end zone in each of their last two games.
A win by the Patriots clinches more than just that No. 1 seed. With a win they’d become just the seventh team in NFL history to go a perfect 8-0 on the road.
It’s a feat New England accomplished once before (you know the season), and something the San Francisco 49ers have done three times in team history (1984, 1989 and 1990). The 2001 St. Louis Rams (who won a Week 13 game in Foxboro before losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl) and 2014 Dallas Cowboys also went undefeated on the road.
Please Stay Healthy
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for quarterbacks, with Tennessee losing Marcus Mariota and Oakland losing Derek Carr to knee injuries. In losing their leaders, the Titans’ playoff hopes went out the window, and Oakland doesn’t seem like a potential threat for anyone anymore with Matt McGloin taking the snaps.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see Tom Brady start and play in this one, because the No. 1 seed means the Pats would (theoretically) have an easier path to a trip to Houston in February. But it’s also important the Patriots go into the playoffs as healthy as possible, and we shouldn’t rule out a Jimmy Garoppolo appearance should this one get out of hand on either side of the scoreboard. Especially if Ndamukong Suh has that crazy look in his eyes, and really, when doesn’t he?
The Pats are pretty thin at receiver, especially if they’re without Mitchell (a smart, cautious approach with the rookie’s knee injury), which is why they should let Floyd see a good chunk of the action. It’s great that Julian Edelman is fired up to play in all 16 regular season games for the first time since 2013, but the last thing we need to see is a repeat of Wes Welker in the 2009 finale, when he tore his ACL and MCL in a Week 17 game against the Texans. Thankfully, Bernard Pollard is not on the Dolphins roster for this one.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins showdown at 1 p.m. on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub — the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins on 98.5FM with Patriots Preview at 10 a.m., and on WBZ-TV at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay. After the game, catch three full hours of postgame analysis on the Hub and see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s press conferences live on Patriots 5th Quarter over on myTV38!