By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are on a roll and look to keep their six-game win streak going on Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Miami Dolphins to Gillette Stadium.
The 4-6 Dolphins, on the other hand, are looking to end a four-game skid as they cling to life in an abysmal AFC playoff picture. The Pats are 16-point favorites heading into this one, which could turn into a laugher early.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots welcome their AFC East foe to Foxboro:
Keeping Brady Protected
Tom Brady has been his usual self this season despite his old age (in football terms, of course. No offense intended to any 40-somethings out there), leading the NFL with 3,147 passing yards to go along with his 22 touchdown passes. He’s also been kept relatively clean by his offensive line over the last few weeks, though his new Achilles injury was courtesy of a hit he took last week against the Raiders.
It’s always in the O-line’s best interest to keep Brady upright, and this week they’ll be pushing and shoving against a Miami pass rush that has been non-existent for much of the season. But it’s hard to rest easy when Cameron Wake is lining up on the other side, and it’s terrifying to think of Ndamukong Suh and Kiko Alonso taking aim at your franchise quarterback. That will be the case for the Patriots in two of the next three weeks.
As for this particular Sunday, the Patriots will be without center David Andrews and right tackle Marcus Cannon once again, leaving Ted Karras and LaAdrian Waddle to fill their respective voids. Both played well last weekend against the Raiders, and they have to keep that going against Miami. It’s likely we’ll see Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen stay back and help out as extra blockers to give the offensive line a few extra hands to keep anyone gunning for Brady from actually doing so.
Maybe we’ll even see Gronk toss Alonso out of the club if he and his teammates try to do anything funny (read: dirty).
Keep On Cookin’
Brandin Cooks is loving life in New England, and those good times should continue on Sunday.
The receiver had his biggest game in a Patriots uniform last week against the Raiders, hauling in six catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. He had a lovely 64-yard touchdown catch and a 52-yard connection with Brady to start a previous scoring drive. In other words, those two are on the same page, and that makes them extremely dangerous.
The Dolphins have a young and inexperienced group of corners who struggle in coverage, so Cooks should be able to break free for a few more long balls on Sunday.
Busy Day For New England Secondary
The Miami offense ranks at the bottom of the league in most categories, including 30th in points per game, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots secondary won’t have their hands full on Sunday. Bill Belichick noted on Friday that the Dolphins go “very heavy” with an 11 personnel set on offense, meaning the Pats will see a lot of three receiver sets this weekend.
Miami’s trio of Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills can all make plays, even with Matt Moore throwing them the football. Moore will get his second start this season on Sunday with Jay Culter still not cleared after suffering a concussion last weekend.
Landry, who leads the way in Miami with 67 receptions and six touchdowns, will have a little extra motivation on Sunday, eager to live up to his April prediction that the Dolphins would sweep the Patriots. He was asked about that proclamation earlier this week, and said his mindset hasn’t changed.
“Honestly, it’s a pride thing and also it’s something for us, a mindset. I spoke about it. They’re a team I have a great respect for. I always will. The guys over there, I know guys over there – Tom [Brady] and all of those guys. It’s nothing against them. It’s something that as a competitor, you want to win. Just like every game, I approach it the same and that’s the mindset,” he told reporters in Miami.
Landry has had some success against the Pats, with 70 or more receiving yards in five of his six games. He’s also on a roll with touchdowns in four of his last five games. Stills is also coming off of his best game of the season, snagging seven passes from Moore for 180 yards and a touchdown.
The Pats are still last in the NFL in terms of passing yards allowed per game, though they haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer in their last four. The unit is improving, but Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore and Jonathan Jones will have a busy day on Sunday against the pass-happy Dolphins, especially if the Patriots take an early lead.
Lots Of Laundry On The Field
There isn’t a whole lot going right with the Dolphins, and a lot of their struggles are self-inflicted. That includes their abundance of penalties, as Miami is second in the NFL with 84 flags on the season. It’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be fixing itself, either, as they were hit with 17 penalties last weekend. For comparison’s sake, the Patriots have been flagged 17 times total in their last four games, and just three times over the last two weeks.
An astounding 33 of Miami’s flags have been pre-snap penalties. So get ready to see the officials toss that yellow hanky quite a bit on Sunday.