Here are ten things worth keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Brian Hoyer. The backup quarterback should get significant snaps Sunday afternoon against the Dolphins. In last year’s regular-season finale against the Texans — in a game where playoff seedings had been determined — he went 8-for-12 for 71 yards, and threw in a 10-yard scramble for good measure. Chances are good that Tom Brady gets the bulk of the time on Sunday, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hoyer play most or all of the fourth quarter.
“He's really come a long way,” Brady said of his backup. “He's really a smart kid that’s got all the physical skills. He just needs the opportunity. We always talk about [the fact] that you never know when you're going to get that opportunity because at quarterback, it’s one play. And then you go in there and you seize the opportunity. He’s done everything the coaches have asked for. Obviously they have a lot of confidence in him; he was the backup last year. I think the whole team has a lot of confidence in Brian.”
Milestones. There are many Patriots who are nearing important marks, including Rob Gronkowski, who has nine touchdowns. (The rookie record for tight end touchdowns in a season is 12, set by Mike Ditka in 1961.) But none are bigger than the one looming for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is bidding to become the first 1,000-yard rusher in Patriots history since Corey Dillon ran for 1,635 in 2004. Entering Sunday’s game, Green-Ellis is 72 yards shy of 1,000. In the 2004 finale, the Patriots left Dillon in the game long enough for him to qualify for a bonus, and then yanked him. Expect the same thing to happen when Green-Ellis hits 1,000 yards — not that he’s thinking about the 1,000-yard mark.
“The only thing I’m really going to focus on is going out and helping my team compete and win,” Green-Ellis said when asked if he was thinking about hitting the 1,000-yard mark. “The individual really [doesn’t] do anything. It’s a team sport. This Sunday, I’m just going to try and not to get ahead of myself. We’ve still got a lot of preparing to do. Miami is a good football team and we don’t want to just go out there and do this or that. We want to go out there and try and do whatever the game plan is and execute it to the best of our ability and try and come out on top.”
Taking care of the football. In that same vein, the Patriots continue to be on a record pace when it comes to not turning the ball over. New England has turned the ball over only nine times (five fumbles, four interceptions) through 15 games, and would appear to have an excellent shot at setting a new NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season: That mark, set by the Kansas City Chiefs in a strike-shortened 1982 season, is 12. (The record for a 16-game season is 13, set by both the 2008 Giants and the 2008 Dolphins.) If they are able to keep the turnovers to a minimum on Sunday, they will set a mark that is every bit as impressive as anything the 2007 Patriots were able to accomplish.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve done anything different this year than what we’ve done in the past. I just think that guys who are in possession of the ball have done a very good job of that: the running backs, the receivers. All those guys, that when you have it in your hand, you're not putting it on the ground,” said Brady. “We need to continue to understand the importance of taking care of it — to not give up short fields. I think us winning the turnover ratio over the last seven weeks or whatever it’s been, it’s certainly been more scoring opportunities for us and fewer scoring opportunities for them. That’s why I think we’ve been outscoring these opponents like we have been.”
Steering clear of Cameron Wake. The Miami pass rusher remains the Dolphins’ best threat when it comes to getting after the quarterback, and should be the focus of the New England offensive line this week. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker, a former CFL star, leads the league with 14 sacks, one of which came earlier this season in a loss to the Patriots. Wake figures to line up opposite New England left tackle Matt Light, who will almost certainly get help from a tight end, who should stay in to help or try and at least get a chip on Wake before he starts his own route.
“He's really a good football player — we saw that last year. We’ve seen it this year,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Wake. “He's good in the running game, good in the passing game. He's got good length. He's got a good motor. He's strong. He’s got a good variety of pass rush moves. He can get the edge. He can play with power. He can come inside. He's a hard guy to block. He really, I think, does pretty much everything well.”
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Early stops. So much of the success of the 2010 Patriots is tied back to complementary football — the New England defense forces an early punt or two, while Brady and the offense manage touchdowns or field goals on their first couple of possessions. (The Patriots’ 38 points in their first possession over the course of the season is tied for fourth-best in the league.) Before you know it, a team (like Buffalo last week) starts to panic because of the pressure the Patriots offense has started to generate, abandons the running game and tries to become a one-dimensional passing team in an attempt to get back into it. That makes the opponent so much easier to defend, and that’s when things really start to snowball. If the New England offense continues to operate at peak efficiency, two or three stops by the Patriots defense right out of the gate should take any sense of drama out of the game.
Defending the run. The Dolphins running attack isn’t what it once was, but they will more than likely test a New England run defense that’s struggled early lately with Ronnie Brown (720 rushing yards this season) and Ricky Williams (668 rushing yards) leading the way. The New England defensive front is pretty banged up at this point in the season, with Ron Brace and Mike Wright unlikely to play on Sunday and Myron Pryor a question mark. If the Patriots go out there trying to win on Sunday, that means there will be a whole lot of Vince Wilfork, Gerard Warren, Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love. (Don’t be shocked if you see Wilfork lined up at multiple spots along the defensive front.)
Milestones. As is the case on the offensive side of the ball, there are some reachable milestones for the New England defense. Devin McCourty’s six interceptions are second only to Mike Haynes (who had eight in 1976) when it comes to most interceptions by a Patriots rookie. (He’s also tied for second in the NFL.) Meanwhile, linebacker Jerod Mayo has 186 tackles on the season, leaving him just 14 tackles shy of becoming only the third Patriots player ever to reach 200 tackles. And the New England defense has five defensive touchdowns this season (four interceptions, one touchdown return), one shy of tying the team record of six, set by the 2007 team.
McCourty vs. Davone Bess. Bess was perhaps the lone offensive bright spot for Miami when these two teams met earlier in the season — he came away with eight catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. (It continued a bizarre early-season trend for opposing offenses against the Patriots that saw big numbers posted by slot receivers.) While it shouldn’t be a singular one-on-one match all afternoon, McCourty and Bess should lock horns on multiple occasions on Sunday.
Miami kicker Dan Carpenter is having a sensational year with 30 field goals and 114 points, but that’s pretty much the high point of the Dolphins special teams unit. Bess has been occasionally productive in the punt return game, while Nolan Carroll and Patrick Cobbs have been average when it comes to returning kicks. The Patriots have seen some steady improvement over the last month from Julian Edelman in the punt return game, while Brandon Tate’s early-season fireworks have disappeared — at this point in the season, he’s simply a better-than-average kick returner. Kicker Shayne Graham and punter Zoltan Mesko are also slightly better than the middle of the pack when it comes to their numbers. If you’re looking for an edge, it probably goes to the Patriots because they are more familiar with the late-season environment.
When the Dolphins have traveled to Foxboro late in the season, it almost always turns out to be something of a disaster for them, with the only exception coming in 2005 when New England, looking for a more favorable playoff seeding, gift-wrapped a January game for Miami. The schedule makers have taken pity on the Dolphins, occasionally switching things up and having the Patriots in South Florida late in the season. But there’s a reason that Miami, accustomed to the heat of Florida, has struggled late in the season in New England. The Dolphins have suffered memorable late-season losses in Foxboro in 1982, 1993, 2002 and 2003. Even though Miami is 6-1 away from home this year, if the two teams do play this one straight up — that is, if the Patriots do go with their starters for the bulk of the game, as expected — there’s little reason to think that New England could lose this game.