The Miami Dolphins (10-5) will host the New England Patriots (13-2) to wrap up the NFL regular season for both teams. The two AFC East rivals last met in week 2 in Foxborough with the Patriots coming out on top by a score of 31-24. While both teams have already clinched a playoff berth, this matchup looms large with several AFC teams still jockeying to improve their seeding.
Miami, who will be making its first playoff appearance since 2008, enters Sunday’s matchup having won nine of its last 10 games, including three in a row. The Dolphins also have beaten the Patriots in each of the last three meetings in Miami. A win over New England on Sunday, coupled with a San Diego victory over Kansas City, would enable the Dolphins to move up to the No. 5 seed. This is important because the Dolphins’ current outlook as a No. 6 seed has them facing the Steelers on the road in the wild card round. A No. 5 seed would provide a more favorable road matchup against the Texans.
For the Patriots, a win secures the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, as well as a 8-0 record in road games. New England has been in this position before, losing to Miami in Week 17 last season, which relegated the Patriots to the No. 2 seed. That resulted in them having to go to Denver to face the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, instead of getting them on their own turf. No doubt New England would like to avoid a similar path, as a loss to the Dolphins and a win by Oakland over Denver would give the Raiders the top seed.
New England at Miami
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: New England -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New England Running Game vs. Miami Rushing Defense
It stands to reason that the Patriots will probably want to lean heavily on their ground game in this matchup. They feature one of the top rushing attacks in the league, averaging 116.8 yards per game, good for eighth in the NFL. Conversely, the Dolphins have been one of the worst at stopping the run, allowing 141.8 rushing yards per game (30th). Miami has been particularly generous of late, surrendering 187.6 yards per game on the ground alone over its last three contests, including 272 last week to Buffalo.
In the first meeting against the Dolphins, New England ran for 161 yards at home with LeGarrette Blount accounting for 123 of those (and a touchdown). Miami will have its hands full against Blount, who leads the league with 17 rushing touchdowns and is eighth with 1,100 yards. Dion Lewis, a change-of-pace option who can be explosive as a receiver out of the backfield, also figures to be involved after missing the first meeting because of a knee injury. A versatile and potent Patriots backfield could be in for a field day unless the Dolphins show more resistance they have recently.
2. Jay Ajayi vs. New England Defense
Miami also has been successful running the game, slotting just behind the Patriots in rushing offense at 116.6 yards per game. The catalyst for the Dolphins on the ground has been Ajayi, who is fourth in the league at 86.6 rushing yards per game. He is coming off of 206-yard effort against Buffalo, his third game of 200 or more yards this season. Only three other running backs in NFL history have had as many such performances in a single season.
Ajayi has plenty of momentum, but he will be put to the test when a stingy Patriots’ defense rolls into town on Sunday. New England features the third-ranked rushing defense in the league (89.5 ypg) and has given up the fewest touchdowns on the ground (six). In the Week 2 meeting, the Patriots held Miami to just 70 rushing yards with Ajayi getting a total of 14 on five carries.
Ajayi has had success against tough defenses, namely a 204-yard, two-touchdown showing against Pittsburgh in Week 6. But he is currently battling a shoulder injury, so he may not be at full strength against a defense that has already shown itself capable of stopping him in his tracks.
3. The Quarterbacks
Matt Moore has proven to be more than serviceable so far filling the void left behind by the injured Ryan Tannehill. Moore has thrown for more than 200 yards in each of his two starts, combining for six touchdown passes and just two interceptions en route to a 2-0 record. While passing yards might not be too difficult for Moore to come by against the Patriots (240.1 ypg, 14th in the NFL), finding the end zone could be an issue. New England is No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense (15.7 ppg), and has allowed just one of its last six opponents to score more than 17 points.
Tom Brady was suspended for the Week 2 matchup against the Dolphins in Foxborough. And each of his last two visits to Miami has not yielded positive results. Brady didn’t throw a touchdown pass in the Week 17 loss last season and had just one on the road against the Dolphins in 2014. Miami has done a good job against the pass this season, giving up 240 yards per game through the air while collecting 16 interceptions. Regardless, it’s not hard to like Brady’s chances to break his streak of bad luck against the Dolphins on the road. Miami will be without starting cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle), as well as starting free safety Isa Abdul-Quddus (neck) for this matchup. That should help Brady’s cause.
A seemingly overmatched Miami team has overcome big odds to play the role of spoiler in each of its last three home games against New England. Regardless, there is a very good reason why a playoff-bound Dolphins team finds itself as an underdog once again as the Patriots come to town. Aside from the fact that New England has the superior team, the Dolphins are simply not as good as their record suggests.
The turnaround that has occurred in Miami under first-year head coach Adam Gase cannot be completely discounted. However, some of the luster is lost when you take into consideration the relatively easy path the Dolphins had to navigate to get to 10-5. The Dolphins have just one win all season against teams with a winning record, as they got destroyed by Baltimore 38-6 in Week 13 in their last such matchup. And when it comes to the NFL’s best teams to this point, the list definitely includes Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Miami has had New England’s number at home recently, but not this time.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.