Just two weeks ago, the Patriots were surviving a comfortable but injury-plagued win over the Dolphins in Foxboro. Now, the scene flips to Miami and prime time as the division foes clash on Monday Night Football.
The Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski on offense, as the tight end serves a one-game suspension. But wide receiver Chris Hogan is expected to return after missing the Patriots’ last four games. They’ll also be without key pieces of the defense in Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, essentially have to win out to even have a chance of landing a playoff spot. But at 5-7 they may have a little something to play for – and they’ll certainly be delivering hard hits whenever they can. Here’s what to watch for on Monday night:
Patriots offense without Gronk
The Pats have already played a game without Gronkowski this season, when they ground out a 19-14 win over the Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football. They get their second Gronk-less test in Miami, and this time they may be even better equipped.
Players like Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and even backup tight end Dwayne Allen have carved out larger roles in the offense in recent weeks. Brandin Cooks, who caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown against the ‘Fins two weeks ago, has gotten more comfortable and could be in line for an even bigger workload.
The key to it all will be the ability to keep Tom Brady upright and the pocket clean. But as usual, if they give him the time, he will likely find his targets – even without No. 87 on the field.
Can Miami keep up?
The Dolphins will once again be led by quarterback Jay Cutler, who returned last weekend against the Broncos. But the mercurial veteran QB has just an 82.1 passer rating on the season, and in three career games against the Patriots he has an abysmal 70.5.
Unless the Dolphins defense can make life uncommonly hard for Brady, Cutler will be hard-pressed to keep up with the Patriots on offense. That’s especially true with the strong play of the secondary in recent weeks, with Stephon Gilmore especially stepping up against stiff competition from opposing wide receivers.
Miami’s chances may come down to Jarvis Landry’s ability to produce, but even then it’s difficult to see the Dolphins scoring into the high-20’s, let alone the 30’s. In a game featuring some glaring mismatches, the quarterbacks may be the biggest one of them all.
Tom Brady in Miami
Although he is 21-9 in his career against the Dolphins, Tom Brady has suffered eight of those losses on the road. He’s merely 7-8 in Miami in his career, but is coming off a 35-14 win in Week 17 last season.
The Patriots have put together some bizarrely sloppy efforts in Miami during Bill Belichick’s tenure, and Brady hasn’t always been immune to that. Based on pure history and his record, it’s essentially a 50-50 proposition of which Patriots team will show up.
But it goes to show that, probably, the only way the Patriots could lose this game on Monday night is if they beat themselves.
Dirty hits and suspensions dominated the discussion surrounding the NFL leading up to Week 14, with Gronkowski’s suspension leading the way. The Steelers paid the price with a suspension of their own for JuJu Smith-Schuster. And there’s reason to be concerned about more extracurricular activity coming from the Dolphins.
Ndamukong Suh has a well-earned reputation as arguably the dirtiest player in the NFL with his history of cheap tactics like stomping players and blatantly stepping on Aaron Rodgers’ leg. Even worse, he consistently excuses his own behavior. So it wouldn’t come as a shock to anyone if he tried any funny business against Brady or anyone else on the Patriots.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso has also been known to launch his helmet at players in defenseless positions, like his headshot on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco earlier this season. The Patriots offensive line will need to protect Brady in order to produce, but they’ll also need to protect him from cheap shots as much as anything else.