It’s the return of Mythbusters. This week, we take a look at five of the myths surrounding the regular-season finale between the Patriots and Dolphins, set for Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
• Momentum matters when you’re headed into the postseason.
The Patriots finished the 2011 regular season on an uneven note, struggling to beat the Dolphins (27-24) and Bills (49-21) in the final two games of the season at Gillette Stadium. In both games, the Patriots had to come back from double-digit deficits to win. Against Buffalo, New England was down 21-0 at the end of one quarter before roaring back with 49 unanswered points. As for Miami, the Patriots trailed 17-0 at halftime and ran just two plays from scrimmage in Dolphins’ territory in the first two quarters, one of which was a missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. Then, New England took wild card weekend off before crushing the Broncos and beating the Ravens on the way to another Super Bowl appearance.
At least when you’re talking about recent history, it appears that end-of-the-regular-season momentum is overrated as it related to the playoffs. Of the last five teams to win the Super Bowl, only one of them was over .500 over their final six regular-season games -- the 2008 Steelers, who upended the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, went 5-1 in their last six regular-season games. (For what it’s worth, Arizona ended that regular season with four losses in its last six games.) The other four teams that won the Super Bowl in the last five years -- the 2011 Giants, 2010 Packers, 2009 Saints and 2007 Giants -- all went 3-3 in their final six regular-season games.
• In situations like this, Bill Belichick only cares about winning the game.
Belichick has used the regular-season finale to take care of his players on more than one occasion -- last year, he made sure Rob Gronkowski was able to set a record for most receiving yards in a season for a tight end. With 1:30 left in the game and the Patriots holding a 49-21 lead on the Bills, Brian Hoyer connected with Gronkowski on a 22-yard gain that allowed him to push past the mark of 1,310 that New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham set minutes before. After Gronkowski’s catch, the Patriots took a knee three times to run out the clock. The same thing happened at the end of 2010 with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis nearing 1,000 yards. Green-Ellis picked up some late yards in the fourth quarter of a blowout of the Dolphins and was yanked after he hit the plateau.
To that end, our friend Henry Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Analysis has a few records the Patriots might aim for on Sunday.
• Tom Brady has 379 completions -- his own team record is 401, set in 2011.
• Stevan Ridley has 10 rushing touchdowns -- Curtis Martin has the team record with 14. Ridley also is at 270 carries. If he hits 300, he’d be the first Patriots running back to hit the mark since Corey Dillon in 2004.
• Wes Welker has 110 receptions -- his team record is 123, which he set in 2009 (he is fifth right now, and has the first four spots).
• Even if the Patriots play the youngsters and sit the vets, we won’t learn anything from this game.
Let's focus on the offensive line. After a great start to the season -- at one point, the group was hailed as one of the best of the Tom Brady era -- the O-line has struggled over the last month or so. Against the Jaguars -- a team that entered last Sunday’s game having sacked opposing quarterbacks on just 3 percent of passing plays this year (the lowest percentage in the league and on pace to be the fourth-lowest percentage since 1970) -- Jacksonville came away with three sacks and 10 quarterback hits. Those numbers are all the more troubling considering the fact that New England had its entire starting offensive line intact for the first time since a Nov. 11 win over the Bills at Gillette Stadium.
Overall, Brady was sacked just three times from Week 6 to Week 12, but he has taken 11 sacks from Week 13 through Week 16. Despite the fact that Miami doesn’t have much to play for, the Dolphins remain one of the best teams in the league when it comes to getting after the quarterback. The Patriots would love to put together a sack-free Sunday to gain a measure of confidence going into the postseason, and to that end, this game will be a good indicator as to whether or not the New England offensive line is ready for the playoffs -- Miami’s pass rush is just as good as any in the league. Miami sacked Brady four times on Dec. 2 (tying a season worst for New England) and is sixth in the NFL through 15 games with 41 sacks.
• The game has no relevance for the Dolphins.
Miami has a chance to finish 8-8 this season. A win would mark the first time since 2008 the Dolphins could end the regular season with a record of .500 or better. It would represent another step toward respectability for a Miami team that has spent the bulk of the year headed in the right direction. In the wake of a disastrous offseason when the Dolphins were spurned by just about every available quarterback, they have managed to create a nice little foundation of talent in South Florida. The defense (particularly against the run) has started to mature nicely, and the offense has some pieces in place that could mean success down the road.
• The Patriots can afford to let Wes Welker walk at the end of the season.
Welker is finishing an amazing season, one of the most extraordinary stretches for any receiver in the history of the game. As we previously noted, he’s within reach of setting a franchise record for catches in a season (which would break his own mark of 123, set in 2009). Last Sunday, Welker became the first receiver with five 100-reception seasons. Also against the Jaguars, Welker passed Jerry Rice with his 18th career game with 10 or more catches.
While Julian Edelman -- as well as the rest of the options in the passing game -- have made terrific gains over the last year-plus, Welker is completely unique, a pass-catcher so ridiculously in sync with the quarterback it’s hard to believe Brady ever will get another receiver like him. It’s becoming increasingly evident that despite all the offensive options on the New England roster, the Patriots have to bring him back. His durability, reliability and eerie synergy with the quarterback make it a must. Even if the Patriots franchise him for another year -- despite the fact that there’s a flat cap looming and the number for receivers will increase -- New England can’t afford to lose him.