New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

L-R: Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Patriots running back Damien Harris

When the Patriots and Dolphins meet on Sunday in the NFL’s first Week 18, only one team has stakes on the line. The Patriots are playing for playoff seeding, while Miami was eliminated from postseason contention last week.

Still, don’t expect the Dolphins to lie down and let the Patriots secure at least the top wild card spot in the AFC bracket. That’s just not how Dolphins head coach Brian Flores operates. Look no further than the 2019 season finale, when the 4-11 Dolphins came into Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots 27-24, knocking New England out of a first-round bye.

The Patriots will also have to fend off the demons that have followed them to Miami in recent years. Bill Belichick’s team is just 2-6 in its last eight games at Hard Rock Stadium. Players and coaches spoke this week about the challenge of reacclimating to the Southern Florida climate, especially coming from New England so late in the season.

Put all of that together, and it’ll hardly be a party for the Patriots on South Beach on Sunday. What does the team need to do to close the regular season with a win? Let’s take a look at this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: Patriots ball carriers vs. Dolphins secondary

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 12: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs with the ball against the Miami Dolphins during the second half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Fumbles were a major issue for the Patriots in the Week 1 loss to Miami. Damien Harris’ fumble at the end of the game drew the headlines, but the Patriots put the ball on the turf a total of four times, losing two.

    Even when the Patriots didn’t lose the ball, the fumbles set them back. For instance, a Mac Jones fumble early in the game was recovered by Jonnu Smith but set the offense back 13 yards, taking them out of field goal range. They punted from Miami’s 41-yard line instead.

    Granted, the Patriots’ offensive margin for error is much greater than it was in Week 1, but nothing will swing a game faster than turnovers. The ball carriers need to aware the Miami defenders will be going for the football, and protect the rock better than they did in the first meeting.

  • When Miami has the ball: Patriots edge rushers vs. Tua Tagovailoa/Dolphins tackles

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – SEPTEMBER 12: Tua Tagovailoa #1 of the Miami Dolphins looks on from under center against the New England Patriots during the first half at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    This matchup is two-fold. It’s perhaps the Patriots’ biggest advantage, and the spot they need to be the most careful.

    At the start of the week, Bill Belichick’s called Miami’s offensive line ‘consistent.’ He’s not wrong, but the constant is that they’ve struggled. The Dolphins have had one of the worst offensive lines in the league this year. Sunday should be a great chance for the Patriots’ pass rush – which hasn’t been as noticeable the last few weeks – to reestablish itself heading into the playoffs.

    The flipside of that is the Dolphins use of RPOs. Eric Studesville’s offense runs more RPOs than any team in the league, and can take advantage of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s running ability to add a dimension to the plays. As much as they’ll have an opportunity to get after the quarterback, the Patriots pass rushers – especially those on the edge – need to stay disciplined in their lanes and not let Tua break contain.

  • Bonus: New York Jets vs. Buffalo Bills

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 14: C.J. Mosley #57 of the New York Jets goes to tackle Stefon Diggs #14 of the Buffalo Bills after a reception in the second quarter at MetLife Stadium on November 14, 2021 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

    Our final key matchup of the year is the most unconventional (and that’s saying something after one of last week’s involved the backup punter for the worst team in the league). This time, we’re looking at an entirely different game, albeit an important one for the Patriots.

    Despite losing to the Bills two weeks ago, the Patriots are not eliminated from winning the AFC East. With a win and a loss by Buffalo, the Patriots would recapture the division after one year off the throne in 2020.

    How realistic is that scenario? The Bills are clearly the better team, it should take their 45-17 Week 10 win over the Jets for that to be obvious. Yet outside of the Week 16 win over the Patriots, the Bills haven’t quite had the pop they did earlier in the season in recent weeks. Just last week, it took them until the fourth quarter to pull away from the Atlanta Falcons, with Josh Allen throwing three interceptions.

    Meanwhile the Jets come in after one of their most impressive performances of the year, getting out to a multi-score lead over the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers before falling in the final seconds. The Jets already have one major upset on their resume, beating a healthy Tennessee Titans team back in Week 4.

    This this upset likely? No, that’s why it would be an upset. But it’s still a game Patriots fans should have an eye on, at least to start.

     

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