The suddenly surging 3-3 Miami Dolphins visit the undefeated 6-0 Patriots on Thursday night in a tough AFC East battle that could tell us whether or not the division crown might actually be up for grabs this season.
Miami is coming off back-to-back wins over the Titans and Texans after firing Joe Philbin and replacing him with Dan Campbell. Campbell has brought a renewed sense of passion to the Dolphins and they'll certainly need that to take down Tom Brady and the Pats. Ryan Tannehill is coming off a record-setting game and will need to continue that kind of play in Foxborough to give the Phins a chance.
The Patriots pulled out a hard-fought victory against the Jets on Sunday to move to 2-0 in the division. A 3-0 record in the AFC East might all but seal things for New England, but they'll have to do it with some missing key pieces with Jabaal Sheard and Marcus Cannon likely to miss the game.
AFC East games are always tough ones that go down to the end, and on Thursday nights, when sloppiness tends to be an issue, who protects the ball better and makes the fewest mistakes will be the one that wins. Can Miami be the first defense to solve Brady for 60 minutes? It should be a great test for both squads.
Miami at New England
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Network: CBS/NFL Network
Line: Patriots -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Vernon and Wake vs. Patriots Tackles
Since losing starting left tackle Nate Solder for the season and his backup/swing tackle Marcus Cannon early against the Colts, the Patriots have had to juggle their offensive line, swapping starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to left tackle and subbing second-year player Cameron Fleming into the right tackle spot. Both held up well against the Jets' vaunted front, but Miami's edge rushers are a unique challenge. Vollmer and Fleming can struggle against speed and that's just what Vernon and Wake have. While Tom Brady usually gets the ball out quick, minimizing the effects of edge rushers, Wake and Vernon have enough talent to still cause problems, and potentially blow up the Patriots' game plan.
2. New England's 3rd Down Defense
The Patriots are currently 28th in the NFL in third down defense, a problem that really hurt them against the Jets, with New York converting eight of 14 third downs into first downs. Just one or two more plays on third down would've made a huge difference and with Ryan Tannehill clicking right now, they'll need to step up when they have the chance to force a punt or field goal. Not having Jabaal Sheard hurt against the Jets, he's their best pass rusher, and early signs are that he'll be out against Miami. New England's pass rush will have to step up or the Dolphins will be putting together long sustained drives like the Jets did.
3. Can Miami Solve Brady?
You can probably throw most of the analysis in this one out the window. Simply put, Tom Brady is playing in another universe right now and is nearly impossible to stop for a full 60 minutes. Of course, New England's offense is unlikely to keep this pace and at some point have a down game. Miami has given Brady plenty of problems in the past and they should enter the game with great energy after their rejuvenation under Dan Campbell. Does Campbell and his staff have the kind of game plan necessary to stop the Patriots' seemingly unstoppable offense? It's a huge challenge for the interim head coach, who will need both brains and brawn to win this one.
The Dolphins are playing up to their lofty offseason expectations under Campbell, but beating the Titans and Texans is one thing — beating the Patriots in Foxborough is something else. If this game was in Miami the Dolphins might be favored given how they've looked the last two weeks. The Patriots have a number of injuries that they've overcome so far, but Miami does have the pieces to exploit the fill-ins. Still, on a short week it's hard not to go with the home team with the experienced head coach and quarterback.