BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots clinched their spot in the postseason last weekend, and now all that needs to be sorted out is their seeding. The Patriots can finish anywhere but the No. 4 seed in the AFC, depending on what happens in the NFL’s first-ever Week 18.

Winning would obviously help their cause, especially since a win and a Buffalo loss to the New York Jets (however unlikely that may be) will earn New England the AFC East title. It has been nearly two whole years since the Patriots won their division. It’s been rough.

Unfortunately, the Patriots are heading to a place that has not been too kind to them. They’re probably happy to leave a frigid and snowy Foxboro for the warm and humid air of Miami, but Southeastern Florida has been an absolute nightmare for the Patriots. Even when they had Tom Brady at quarterback, a win in Miami was no sure thing.

The Patriots have lost six of their last eight visits to Miami, winning only in 2016 and 2019. (The 2019 regular season famously ended with a home loss to the Dolphins that cost the Patriots a first-round bye.) In 2015, the Patriots lost in Miami, which cost them the No. 1 seed in the AFC. They’d go on to lose to the Broncos in Denver in the AFC Championship Game, a game that would have been in Foxboro had the Patriots not gone with a Steven Jackson-heavy attack to start Week 17. The Patriots punted seven times that day and another drive ended with a turnover on downs.

But the worst of the worst was in 2018, when Bill Belichick lost his mind and put Rob Gronkowski out on defense for the final play. Gronk was great at shedding tackles, but not so great at making them, and it was an absolute disaster for the Patriots. The 34-33 walk-off loss was a gut-punch at the time, but at least New England went on to win the Super Bowl that season.

Now the Patriots will be playing against the Dolphins on the final week of the regular season for the 17th time. The teams have split the previous 16 matchups, going 4-4 at each venue. Miami had its seven-game win streak snapped last weekend, eliminating them from the postseason. But Brian Flores and company would love to play a spoiler role against the Patriots this weekend.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the two teams kick off Sunday afternoon:

Heads Up, Mac!

The Patriots are going to look to establish the run, considering the Dolphins let the Titans run all over them one week ago. But Mac Jones is going to have to make some throws too.

Jones was only sacked once by the Dolphins in Week 1, but they welcomed the rook to the NFL but hitting him nine times throughout the game. In addition to the Miami heat, he’ll be feeling a lot of pressure this weekend.

Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers blitzed more than the Dolphins this season, with Miami blitzing on 39.8 percent of the drop backs they’ve faced. (Tampa was first at 40.8 percent.) They lead the league in QB knockdowns with 76, and are second in pressures (185) and third in sacks (45). Emmanuel Ogbah has led the charge for the Dolphins with nine sacks, while rookie Jaelan Phillips has brought a ton of pressure from the outside and racked up eight sacks.

“They’ve done a really good job getting after the quarterback and creating negative plays,” Jones noted earlier this week. “They’ve given quarterbacks they’ve played against a lot of different looks. We have to be ready and follow our looks, follow what we know. We just have to be ready.”

The New England offensive line kept Jones completely clean last weekend against the JV Jaguars, but they’ll have their hands full this weekend against a team that will be looking to turn up the heat against Jones.

Getting Off The Field

Overall, the Patriots have been a very good defense on third down. Opponents are converting just 35.71 percent, which is good for fourth in the NFL.

But one of the biggest issues for the Patriots during their two-game skid was the defense getting off the field. Against the Colts, it was on fourth down, with Indy going a perfect 3-for-3 with their backs against the wall. Against the Bills it was both third and fourth down, with Buffalo going 6-for-12 and 3-for-4, respectively.

Two of those three third-down conversions by the Bills came on their 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate over five minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter and sealed the victory. And when the Pats made a third-and-1 stop on that drive, the Bills converted on fourth down.

That obviously wasn’t an issue last weekend, but it’s a concern for the defense as they gear up for the playoffs. It feels like they can’t stop opponents unless they get them in long-yard situations on third down. The Dolphins, who are in the middle of the pack converting 40.37 percent of the time on third down, are going to be aggressive this weekend as they look to play spoiler. The defense needs to be a lot better in late-down situations in their final tune-up before the playoffs.

Figuring Out Tua

Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t been all that great this season, with 15 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in his 12 games. Five of those interceptions have come in his last three games, and he also fumbled three times (losing one) in Miami’s must-win game against the Titans last week. The Dolphins obviously did not win that game.

But he’s had success with the Run-Pass Option, and can hurt a team with his legs. He’s also had success against New England, sporting a 2-0 record against the Pats. He threw a what could have been a costly interception late in the fourth quarter in Week 1, but we all know what the Patriots did with that possession.

This is a big game for rookie Christian Barmore, who has been an incredibly disruptive force up the middle for the Patriots. If anyone is going to blow up Miami’s RPO playbook, it’s New England’s other big rook out of Alabama.

Secondary Needs A Good Game

As noted, Tua tends to throw passes to the other team. The Pats secondary needs to take full advantage of that, because they’ve been wildly average recently. (Aside from that Jags game, of course.)

Miami has a pretty good receiving corps with DeVante Parker and sixth-overall pick Jaylen Waddle leading the charge. The rookie receiver has really come on strong as of late with 31 receptions over his last four games, and he leads the team with 99 catches and five touchdowns. He’s also a threat in the return game, so the Patriots have to worry about Waddle in multiple facets of the game.

Containing Waddle is a big key for the Patriots this weekend, a task that will likely fall on J.C. Jackson. But this weekend will be a big test for New England’s corners, with that grouping’s depth a big question mark moving forward.

The Dolphins also have a really solid tight end in Mike Gesicki, who has a career-high 71 receptions, 38 of which have gone for a first down. None of those came in Week 1, when the Patriots kept him off the stat sheet. That will be a lot tougher this weekend with Kyle Dugger ruled out with a hand injury.

Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 4:25pm, and after the game tune in to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!

CBSBoston.com Staff