Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Dolphins,Patriots Playing For Seeding, Will Not Rest Starters

Where would you rather have to play in the dead of winter in a one-and-done playoff scenario?

Your first choice is in a climate-controlled domed stadium against an opponent with a weaker record and who just barely qualified for the playoffs by winning the worst division in all of football, while your second choice is in an open-air stadium in the northeastern United States where the temperatures are liable to be in the teens with a windchill of negative connotations against a team that also just scraped into the playoffs, but are battle-tested in the tough AFC North.
Martellus Bennett is part of New England's downfield threat

If you are the Miami Dolphins and you have control over a scenario where you could go to Houston to face the offensively-challenged Texans in the Wildcard round of the 2016 NFL Playoffs, you do everything in your power to take that kind of favorable matchup - but if you don't, or can't, make that scenario come true, you will find yourself smack in the middle of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania against a Steelers team that is operating on all thrusters and as dangerous as any team in the tournament.

All the Dolphins have to do on Sunday to win a trip to Houston is to beat the visiting New England Patriots.

The Dolphins need this game if they want the easiest path to the Divisional round and perhaps even to the AFC Championship game - the Patriots just need it, for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs - but there is a far more dark reason.

You see, the Dolphins represent the best on-field challenge for New England, which in turn will keep the team sharp going into their first-round playoff bye without being over-challenging in game-planning and preparation, since they are a well-known commodity in Foxborough.  Miami is relentless and plays with the heart of an underdog, and what they do well is what the other teams in the AFC East do when playing the Patriots: They find a way to hang around and give themselves a shot to win in the fourth quarter.

But unlike the Buffalo Bills, who have no defense, and the New York Jets who have no offense, the Dolphins have just enough of both to make things tough for New England on Sunday.

Much has been made of Miami's "prolific" running attack, led by second-year back Jay Ajayi, but the fact of the matter is that their ground game runs hot and cold.  For all of the coverage Ajayi received for topping 200 yards in consecutive games around midseason, the Dolphins as a team hit triple-digits on the ground only six times, going for two hundred against the Steelers and twice against the Bills...

...but in games against average to good run defenses, they sport an average of just 84 yards per game on the ground, which feeds into what the Patriots defense does best.

The New England run defense is ranked third in the National Football League, which illustrates how the Patriots approach each game - priority one being to stop the opposition's running game, which they have by holding nine of their fifteen foes under the century mark, and five of their last six, a period which has seen the Patriots surrender a league low 72 yards per game.

The New England pass defense gave up a season-high 387 yards to Miami in week two, but in truth 308 of those passing yards came during a furious second half rally which saw the Dolphins recover from a 24-3 halftime deficit, cutting the Patriots' lead to seven and knocking on their doorstep in the final seconds for the tie before centerfielder Duron Harmon ended the threat with a clutch interception at the New England nine yard line.

And therein lies the rub. Miami is not excellent in any unit on offense, but they are relentless with the style of a mean counter-puncher - and they have to be, because their defense, particularly their run defense, is absolutely atrocious, having given up nearly 150 yards per game since their bye.

Good news for a Patriots' team that sports a top-ten running game themselves, that has averaged 117 yards per game since their own bye week - and that phase of the offense is going to be important to the Patriots as they face a Dolphins' pass defense that is vertically challenged. Miami's opponents have demonstrated great balance on offense, and the ability to remain patient, knowing that their running game will set up their intermediate to deep passing game...

...which New England actually has this season. Since the departure of Randy Moss, the Patriots have relied purely on the short "Dink-and-Dunk" passing game, employing garden gnomes as receivers and monoliths as tight ends, and tying the entire thing together with prolific passing backs - but this season, with the addition of former Buffalo Bill Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell, not to mention recent acquisition Michael Floyd, the Patriots have demonstrated a protracted ability to go over the top of defenses.

That makes New England's offense even more dangerous than they have been in previous meeting through the past few seasons with Miami, and affords them excellent balance and depth - which, despite the aforementioned struggles for the Dolphins on defense, will be as important as any other factor for the Patriots' offense, as Miami is tops in the league in their down defense, accomplished simply by bringing heat from their violent pass rush in obvious passing situations.

This game has all the makings of a classic Patriots / Dolphins showdown, but with much more on the line for both teams. Last season, the Patriots sleepwalked through their season finale and lost home field advantage throughout the playoffs because of it - and that in itself should tell you everything you need to know about this game...

...because if the Dolphins played that hard and that mean in a meaningless game for them to end last season, how much more motivated are they going to be when the game means the difference between going to a toasty warm Houston as the fifth-seed or to iced-down Pittsburgh as the sixth-seed, something that a win over New England will provide them.

But the Patriots are not without motivation either, as they well remember what that loss to Miami last season cost them in the playoffs. New England is in a similar boat this time around, in trying to fend off a challenge from the Oakland Raiders for the top seed in the AFC, which a victory over the Dolphins will give them.

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