BOSTON (CBS) — There are just three weeks left in the regular season, and the Patriots will finish things off with three straight games against AFC East foes.
While games against conference opponents are never easy, and New England’s first three division games of the season are perfect evidence of just that, the Patriots have feasted on the Dolphins, Jets and Bills over the last decade. They are 65-18 in the regular season against their AFC East rivals since 2001, the best intra-division record in the NFL.
Things get even more lopsided at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have won 16 straight games against AFC East opposition at home, with their last loss coming back in November 2008 when the New York Jets left Gillette Stadium with a 34-31 overtime win. The Patriots are 32-5 against the AFC East in the regular season since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002.
Bill Belichick teams also don’t lose twice to division foes, as they’ve done so just twice since he took over, falling to the Jets and Dolphins both times they faced off in the 2000 regular season.
Add in the fact that Miami is only 4-12 all-time when they visit the Patriots in December and January, and this one has the makings for a sure Patriots victory.
But we all know it’s not that easy, and anything can happen in these division tilts. The Dolphins usually play the Patriots pretty tough, and though these Dolphins are just 6-6 since their Week 1 win over New England, they are fighting for their playoff lives.
Here’s what to watch for when the Patriots and Dolphins square off Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
Pressure On Tom Brady
The Dolphins made life miserable for Tom Brady in Week 1, as it usually is for No. 12 whenever he plays in Miami Gardens. Brady was sacked four times in New England’s 33-20 season-opening loss, and the offense never found any kind of rhythm in the second half as Miami scored 23 unanswered.
Cameron Wake is always a nightmare for Brady, and he registered two of his 9.5 sacks on the season back in Week 1. When he’s not applying the pressure on the opposing QB it’s defensive end Olivier Vernon, who has 6.5 sacks on the season, including one in Week 1.
But things are different now for the Patriots, with a solidified offensive line that no longer relies on a college tuba player to keep Brady upright. Miami will send the pressure, but the Patriots are much better suited to handle it this time around. He’ll likely still get hit a few times, but Brady should have a much more comfortable pocket to work with than the one he had 13 weeks ago.
Balanced Attack From Offense
Brady threw the ball a season-high 56 times in Week 1. He eclipsed 55 pass attempts once last season, a 24-20 loss to the Dolphins, and twice in 2012, throwing 58 passes in a loss in Seattle and a career-high 65 passes in a 41-34 loss to San Francisco.
Brady has thrown 55 or more passes six times in his career, and New England is just 1-5 in those contests. That lone win came back in 2002, when Brady completed 36 of his 55 attempts in a 33-30 win.
Luckily for Brady and his team, he hasn’t had to make that many throws too often this season (eclipsing 50+ passes two other times in wins over Denver and Detroit) thanks to the much more balanced attack the Patriots have been trotting out every week.
New England ran the ball just 20 times in Week 1, a number that should go up now that we’re in the winter months of the season. Miami’s defense ranks 22nd in the NFL in terms of rushing yards per game (123.5 yards) and is dealing with some injuries in their linebacking corps, so expect to see plenty of those power runs up the middle from LeGarrette Blount on Sunday. The Dolphins will also be without starting safety Louis Delmas, who was lost for the year to a knee injury he suffered last week in Baltimore, so the middle of the field will be a big point of attack for New England.
Luckily they have a bruising running back in Blount, and a resident kitten lover who are very good at making plays over the middle.
Landry Coming On Strong For Miami
Miami ran the ball all over the Patriots in Week 1, with Knowshown Moreno (lost for the season in Week 6) rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown. Lamar Miller also caught the game’s opening score from Ryan Tannehill, and is a serviceable back the Patriots will have to stop on Sunday.
But Miami’s best weapon of late has been rookie receiver Jarvis Landry, who was drafted one pick after Patriots’ backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo. He wasn’t targeted against the Patriots in Week 1, but Tannehill will be looking his way come Sunday afternoon.
Landry has all but taken over the No. 1 receiver role from Mike Wallace in Miami, hauling in 26 receptions and three touchdowns in his last four games. The rookie has five touchdowns for the season, and is also a threat to bring back a punt and kickoff on special teams.
While he’s looked pretty legit over the last two months, Landry will now have the New England secondary to deal with on Sunday. Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung (yes, Patrick Chung) have made better receiving corps look bad this season, but they can’t sleep on the rookie come Sunday.
Hat & T-Shirt Game
With a win or tie this week, the Patriots will earn yet another AFC East crown and add to an extensive collection of hats and t-shirts.
This would be New England’s 14th AFC East title since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994 and 12th since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000. Brady has 11 division crowns on his resume, and said earlier this week that winning the AFC East never gets old.
Sunday would be Vince Wilfork’s 10th division title and the fifth for Devin McCourty, both key leaders on the defense.
But while some players (and their families) are probably getting sick of the “AFC East Champs” swag, winning a division would be a new experience for others. Darrelle Revis never felt that joy during his career with the Jets or Buccaneers. And obviously, it would be the first division title for future Hall of Fame center Bryan Stork (soak in the beginning of greatness, Pats fans).
Given the state of the AFC East, a division title this year (and most of those in the past) doesn’t seem like a major accomplishment. But it’s always the first achievement the Patriots set out for at the beginning of each season, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV— the flagship stations of the New England Patriots. The Sports Hub begins coverage at 10am, with three full hours of postgame reaction and analysis following the game! Coverage on WBZ-TV begins at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, and continues with Patriots 5th Quarter immediately following the game.
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