For New England, the magic number headed into this “Monday Night Football” matchup with Miami is nine. Not only are the Patriots (10-2) looking for their ninth straight win, a victory at Hard Rock Stadium also clinches a ninth straight AFC East title for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company.
The Dolphins (5-7) enter tonight’s game coming off of their most impressive win of the season. Miami defeated Denver 35-9 last week as the team dominated both sides of the ball, including recording two safeties.
The Dolphins need a win to keep pace in the wild-card chase while New England can tie Pittsburgh for best record in the AFC (and NFL) with a victory. The Patriots and Steelers are set to clash in the Steel City next Sunday in a game that could decided home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Miami leads the all-time series over New England 53-50, but the Patriots beat the Dolphins 35-17 two weeks ago behind four touchdown passes from Brady.
New England at Miami
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: New England -11
Three Things to Watch
1. Jay Cutler
Cutler is 0-3 in his career against the Patriots. If he wants to reverse that trend, he will have to play his best game of the season tonight.
Against the Broncos last week, Cutler was 18 of 31 for 235 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Not great numbers, but good enough to win thanks to an inspired effort from his defense. When talking to the media this week, Cutler knows how difficult it is to play against a Patriots defense.
“It’s a very, very smart team,” Cutler said. “(They are) situationally aware. They do things the right way. I think they tackle well on defense. Their assignments are on point. I think he’s notoriously taken away your number one receiver. He makes you get to two and three. (He) makes you do things that are maybe a little bit out of your comfort zone. I think they do a really good job of keeping things in front of them, making offenses go the long road – three, four or five first downs – to score. We’ve just got to figure it out.”
2. Dwayne Allen
Allen will start for Rob Gronkowski, who is suspended for tonight’s game for an illegal late hit last week against the Buffalo Bills. Allen will have big shoes to fill as Gronkowski is leading the team in both receptions (55) and touchdown catches (seven) while ranking second in yards (849). He went for five catches for 82 yards and two scores in the teams’ first meeting on Nov. 26.
Acquired from Indianapolis in the offseason, Allen has just five catches for 50 yards and a touchdown in 12 games thus far. Even though Tom Brady had four touchdown passes in the first game against Miami, the Dolphins were able to get pressure on him (one sack, 18-for-28 passing) and also picked him off once. Allen will need to show that he can be a reliable target for Brady with Gronkowski not available or New England could struggle some with its passing game.
3. Dolphins' secondary
Miami will likely be without starting cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, who is doubtful for tonight’s game. Tankersley injured both his ankle and shoulder in last week’s win over Denver. The third-round pick from Clemson is second on the Dolphins with nine passes defended and tied for seventh with 31 tackles (24 solo).
Alterraun Verner is expected to start in Tankersley’s place. A veteran, this would be Verner’s first start of the season. Miami also could choose to put Verner in the slot while moving Bobby McCain to the outside, opposite Xavien Howard.
While Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has a plan in mind, he wouldn’t tell reporters exactly what that would be should Tankersley not be able to go.
“Yes, I mean I’d rather not give away exactly what we’re doing, but the thing by having both Bobby [McCain] and him is we have flexibility,” Gase said. “Both of those guys can play outside, and both those guys can play inside. It’s just really going to see how things are going on Monday night and we’ve got some flexibility there.”
Miami is a heavy underdog for tonight’s game against New England, which should come as no surprise given the gap in the team’s respective records. But if history is an indicator, the Dolphins will play well at home against the Patriots.
Miami has won three out of its last four games against its long-time divisional foe. While New England’s defense has seen tremendous improvement since the start of the season, they still are somewhat vulnerable to the run (120.8 rushing ypg). If Kenyan Drake can build off of last week’s performance (120 yards, TD) and the Dolphins can minimize mistakes, there’s no reason this game can’t be close heading into the fourth quarter.
While Rob Gronkowski is out because of a suspension, wide receiver Chris Hogan is expected to return after missing the past four games because of a shoulder injury. Hogan and fellow wideouts Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola should see more targets in Gronkowski’s absence.
In the end, the Patriots should be able to make more than enough plays to clinch their ninth straight AFC East title, but don’t be surprised if the final score ends up being closer than many expect.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 24
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.