By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots? Very bad in Miami. Perhaps you’ve heard?
Yes, yes, yes, the prevailing story this week is that for mysterious reasons, Tom Brady and the Patriots always seem to struggle whenever they head to South Florida to take on the Miami Dolphins. That’s been true when the Dolphins were a playoff team, and that’s been true when the Dolphins were a miserable bottom-of-the-barrel team.
It’s been strange.
And while that overriding storyline exists for a reason, you can’t simply sit back and say “Weird things have happened in Miami, so they’ll probably happen again.” Here’s a slightly more detailed look at what to expect when this game kicks off Sunday afternoon in Miami.
It All Starts On Defense
If the Patriots want to avoid any sort of trouble in Miami, they’re going to need their defense to continue this current run of success. After the flop against the Titans, the Patriots’ defense has been lights-out in their two games since the bye.
New England held the Jets to just 338 total yards and 13 points before suffocating the Vikings by allowing just 278 total yards and 10 points. And considering the Dolphins couldn’t manage to even get on the scoreboard until less than three minutes remained in the fourth quarter in their Week 4 game in Foxboro, the Patriots are in prime position to keep their defensive momentum going.
The Patriots’ defense has gotten a potent blend of pass-rush and coverage, helping to lead to three interceptions — one apiece by Stephon Gilmore, Jonathan Jones, and Duron Harmon — over the past two weeks. Ryan Tannehill currently has his highest interception rate of his career (six picks on just 178 attempts), so an interception or two could go a long way in shaping this game. (Rookie J.C. Jackson picked off Tannehill earlier this year, killing a potential Dolphins scoring drive before halftime.
Overall, the Dolphins rank 25th in scoring and 29th in total offense. For New England, the best way to ensure a Miami meltdown doesn’t happen will be to stifle a weak Miami offense.
A “Vintage Brady” Day?
One of the more under-the-radar stories of the entire NFL season has been the Patriots’ morphing into a running team.
That’s not to say they don’t pass the football. Hardly — Tom Brady does rank in the top 10 for pass attempts this season. But, when it comes to getting in the end zone, the Patriots have relied much more on the ground game than they did a year ago. Among the results of this change is a noticeable drop in touchdown passes for the 41-year-old Brady. He’s had one game with zero touchdown passes, and four games with just one touchdown pass. In a season where quarterbacks are chucking touchdowns left and right, the greatest of all time has yet to have a game with more than three touchdown passes.
This week, though, may be the day that Brady puts forth a vintage performance.
A number of elements are lined up for this to be the case. First and foremost, Xavien Howard won’t be playing. The budding star at cornerback picked Brady twice last year, and his seven picks this year are most in the NFL. His absence should open up some room for Brady’s passing offense to operate.
Even with Howard, Miami’s pass defense struggled, ranking 28th in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.1). The Dolphins have also given up 23 passing touchdowns, and they allowed Josh Allen last week to record his first-ever two-touchdown performance. Again, Brady should be in good position to take advantage. A week prior, Andrew Luck completed 30 of 37 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns. (Luck did throw two picks, and the Dolphins did intercept him twice in Week 4, once on a play where Minkah Fitzpatrick simply fooled the quarterback. So a highly successful day is no sure thing.)
But stats and trends and figures aside, there is a sense that perhaps Brady is just overdue for one of his patented Brady performances. And with three cold-weather games scheduled to end the regular season, this may be his last chance.
Though … Maybe Not
While Tom Brady may be looking forward to hurling some deep balls through the Miami air, the Patriots’ best opportunities may come in the running game.
The Dolphins’ run defense has been nothing short of dreadful this season. They rank third-to-last with 144.7 rushing yards allowed per game. They’re 27th in the NFL with 4.96 yards allowed per rush.
Interestingly enough, the Dolphins have allowed just nine rushing touchdowns, so perhaps it’ll be Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White chewing up large yardage chunks between the 20’s, with Brady finishing off drives through the air.
Michel had his first career 100-yard game when he played against Miami in Week 4, rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. White added another 44 yards and a touchdown on his eight carries, and he proved problematic overall for Miami’s defense with his eight catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.
The 2018 Miami Dolphins present a really interesting case study for home-field advantage. A fascinating case. Truly.
At home, the Dolphins are 5-1, outscoring opponents 141-121.
On the road, the Dolphins are 1-5, getting outscored 177-103 by opponents.
It’s hard to have more disparate results for home and road games, and that makes it hard to properly predict how the Dolphins will look come Sunday.
But one potential factor to consider is the quality of opponent. That 5-1 home record was compiled against six teams with a combined record of 28-45. The 1-5 road record came against teams with a combined record of 36-35-1. So, it’s possible that the home-road discrepancy has more to do with opponent than it does with the geographical location of the game.
With the 9-3 Patriots visiting Miami this weekend, we might get a definitive answer on that front.