By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL playoffs are coming. We just have to make it through one more weekend.
And that weekend is a pretty big one, especially for the New England Patriots. You may not think a matchup with the 4-11 Miami Dolphins is an important one, but the Patriots are viewing it as another playoff game. If they win, they’ll clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC. If they lose, chances are they’ll end up the No. 3 seed and have to play Wild Card weekend. So in a way, it definitely is a playoff game for the Patriots.
New England could certainly use that extra week off, and they aren’t going to let the opportunity to earn one escape them. The Patriots are going to come out strong on Sunday, in hopes of calling it a day early. They’re going to handle their business as fast as they can with the intentions of playing a full 60 minutes, but if they earn it, they may get 15-30 minutes off.
Yes, Miami stinks. But they’re not the same stinky team as they were back in Week 2 when the Patriots shut them out, 43-0. And Brian Flores will have his team ready to play some spoiler for his former team. But in the end, they’re still the Dolphins. They’ll battle, but the Patriots are just far superior across the board.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots and the Dolphins kick off the regular season finale at Gillette Stadium:
Run Run Run
The Patriots ground attack has been rejuvenated over the last few weeks, and it should continue to roll on Sunday. They’ve racked up 318 yards over the last two weeks against the Bills and the Bengals, and now face a Miami defense that has surrendered 135.4 rushing yards per game this season. Sounds like another good day for New England’s backfield is on the horizon.
We’re not begging for another Stephen Jackson-game, where the Patriots don’t throw the ball until they run for a first down. But a continued focus on the ground would get that part of the offense going while saving Tom Brady some unneeded hits. Sony Michel is still looking for his first 100-yard game of the season, and it would be a nice little confidence boost if he can get that on his way into the playoffs.
Big Opportunities For Sanu, Harry
The Patriots will also be able to dial up their air attack against Miami. Without star corner Xavien Howard for much of the season, Miami has allowed 265.4 passing yards per game — good for 28th in the NFL.
The Pats can’t afford to play without Julian Edelman, who is still hobbled by shoulder and knee injuries. But Josh McDaniels would be smart to get Mohamed Sanu and N’Keal Harry more involved against the likes of Eric Rowe and Nik Needham in the Miami secondary. Sanu could use a good game to shake off his mistakes over the last few weeks, and Harry seems to make a big play whenever he gets his hands on the football. Both should get ample opportunity to do something good on Sunday.
And if this really is Tom Brady’s final regular season game as a member of the Patriots, it would be nice to see him have a vintage Brady performance. (Though we wouldn’t mind if that came a few weeks from now, either.) The Dolphins just let Andy Dalton throw for nearly 400 yards last Sunday, so Brady could flirt with his first 400-yard game of the year — if he’s in the game long enough.
Gilmore vs. Parker
Ryan Fitzpatrick will be slinging the pigskin for the Dolphins, and that could be good news for the Patriots defense. Fitzmagic hasn’t been as mystical as past years, with 19 touchdowns and 13 picks in 14 games. He’ll close his season against the NFL’s best defense, one that has a knack for forcing turnovers. They picked off Fitzpatrick three times back in Week 2, and that was with him only playing 61 percent of Miami’s offensive snaps.
But we’ve seen Fitzpatrick’s ability to put up points and yards in a hurry, so the defense may actually have a busy day on Sunday. He’s going to be airmailing it on Sunday, and the Pats have given up their share of big plays this season. The Pats also have two of their top four corners on the injury report, and Fitzpatrick has a legit No. 1 receiver at his disposal in DeVante Parker, who is having a career year for Miami. Parker is the proud owner for 64 catches for 1,065 yards and nine touchdowns, which are all career highs for the 26-year-old.
But Parker will likely find himself covered with Stephon Gilmore for much of Sunday’s game, so his chances of adding to his career season will be slim. Parker was targeted seven times in Week 2, and didn’t come down with a single reception. Gilmore will get to test himself against another talented No. 1 receiver ahead of the playoffs, and if Fitzpatrick forces a few passes Parker’s way, the soon-to-be Defensive Player of the Year should add another pick or two to his resume.
We’ve been talking about New England’s amazing defense all season long. They can make some history on Sunday.
The unit is currently the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL heading into Sunday’s game, and if they are still there on Monday, it will be the first time the Patriots have owned the NFL’s No. 1 defense in franchise history.
The Pats lead the NFL in points per game allowed at 13.2, and if they hang on to the No. 1 spot it will be the third time the team has done so under Belichick. The team previously led the NFL in fewest points per game allowed in 2016 (15.6) and 2003 (14.9). And unless Miami drops 39 points on Sunday, the Pats will allow the fewest points in team history.
The defense has allowed only 18 touchdowns this season, which is wild through 15 games. If they allow two or fewer scores, they will become just the 20th defense since the scheduled went to 16 games to let up 20 or fewer touchdowns.
The name of the game on defense has been turnovers, and the Pats lead the league with a plus-23 turnover differential with one week to go. That is currently the third-best turnover differential in team history, behind the plus-28 they had in 2010 and plus-25 in 2012. Given Fitzpatrick will be throwing the ball for Miami this weekend, that differential may improve.
And since the Patriots shut out the Dolphins 43-0 in Week 2, they have a chance to shut them out for the season. If they do that, they would become just the third NFL team to shut out the same opponent twice in a season since 1976.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 1 p.m., and after the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!