Rather than look at specific key matchups this week, I wanted to highlight what I feel will be the 4 keys to victory for the Dolphins this week when they host the Patriots in what is simply a huge game.
#1: Win the battle in the trenches
This game promises to be physical. And in tough, physical games, it's the play of the offensive and defensive lines that is key. Offensively, the Dolphins dominated up front when these two teams met back in week 3. But a lot of that domination came when the Dolphins used the 'Wildcat' - which features an unbalanced line. Odds are the Patriots will be ready for that particular look. So while I'm sure the Dolphins have some new variations of the Wildcat prepared to use, this Miami offensive line is still going to have to be effective out of their base formations.
This means that two critical matchups will be Samson Satele vs Vince Wilfork and Vernon Carey vs Ty Warren. Last time, Satele really stood out to me and surprised me in how well he held up against Wilfork - with help from one of his two guards (usually RG Ike Ndukwe). Carey also performed well, but has struggled in recent weeks. On Sunday, Vernon is really going to have to be able to handle Warren one-on-one, both on running and passing plays. I hope he's up for the challenge.
Defensively for the Dolphins, their big 3 up front need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage as well. Jason Ferguson, in particular, has really stood out over the past 2 weeks. I think it's safe to say that he is fully healed from his previous sternum injury. This week, he'll again need to dominate at the point of attack.
Here's an interesting stat. Did you know that the Pats are averaging just as many yards per carry on the ground as the Dolphins (4.2)? And did you realize that New England is currently 8th in the league in rushing offense, averaging 132.2 yards per game? The Dolphins have to take away New England's ground game early on and force Matt Cassel to throw. The Patriots are just 3-4 when Cassel has to throw over 30 passes but are 3-0 when Cassel throws under 30.
The Dolphins did a good job back in week 3 of shutting down the ground game of New England, holding LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris to 49 rushing yards on 15 carries. And the Dolphins are allowing just 82.3 rushing yards per game during their current 4 game win streak. It'll be important for the Fins to get another similar effort on Sunday.
#2: Contain Randy Moss
The Dolphins did a good job of limiting Moss's touches back in week 3. But that was thanks to, in large part, the effective pass rush - led, of course, by Joey Porter. But Moss, despite having a down year, is still very dangerous and, in my opinion, is still the most physically talented receiver in the game. And the Pats are 3-0 this year when Moss goes over 100 yards receiving. On the other hand, if you can hold Moss to under 30 yards, the Pats are 0-3.
The Dolphins have improved in recent weeks in defending the bigger receivers like Moss. And what the Fins do is pretty simple. When the Dolphins go into their nickel package, Jason Allen enters to join Will Allen and Andre Goodman as the corners on the field. Will Allen then slides inside to cover the slot receiver. Jason Allen goes over to left corner and Goodman plays right corner. And there's generally been some kind of safety help over the to, shading to the opposing team's best receiver's side. This is why you saw different guys covering Brandon Marshall during that game a few weeks back.
Ideally, I'd probably like to see Jason Allen - simply due to his size/speed combination, matched up on Moss the most. But when the Dolphins are in their base defense, it'll be interesting to see if the Pats try to dictate which corner - Will Allen or Goodman - gets matched up on Moss.
Regardless, keeping Randy's touches to a minimum is critical for this Miami defense.
#3: Improved special teams play is a must
If things don't get better for the worst special teams coverage unit in the league, the Dolphins will eventually lose a game or two because of it. And this week is a prime example. The Dolphins have the last ranked kickoff coverage unit in the league, allowing 27.3 yards per return. And they aren't much better on punt coverages. Meanwhile, the Patriots are 4th in the league in kick returns and 8th in punt returns. Ellis Hobbs, NE's primary kick returner, is 3rd in the league in yards per return (among returners with at least 20 returns), averaging over 28 yards per return. Back in week 3, Hobbs had a 50 yard kickoff return and an 81 yard return that set up New England's only touchdown on the day. He's very explosive and the Dolphins must not miss tackles and give Hobbs any return lanes.
Of course, on the other side, Ted Ginn might have some opportunities to make things happen (if his blockers can resist the urge to hold, of course). The Patriots kick coverage unit isn't much better than Miami's, surrendering 24.7 yards per return - 6th most in the league.
So let's hope this is the week that poor coverage hurts the opponents and not the Dolphins.
#4: Win the turnover and time of possession battles
Generally, these two things go hand in hand. The more turnovers you commit, the lower your time of possession is.
Winning the turnover battle was one thing the Dolphins were doing well with for most of the season. But these last two games, the Dolphins were able to win despite losing the turnover battle. That's not a common occurrence and isn't something the Dolphins should get used to. The Dolphins lucked out that they happened to be playing two bad teams these past 2 weeks. But against New England, the Dolphins simply cannot afford to give the Pats extra possessions - especially with good field position.
They must hold on to the ball and win the time of possession battle. It's no coincidence that the Fins are 6-0 this year when having the ball longer than their opponents but are 0-4 when they don't. This means no turnovers and converting on 3rd downs. Here's another interesting stat: the team with the higher third-down conversion rate has won 16 of the last 20 meetings between these two teams.
Limiting turnovers and converting on 3rd down will be absolutely critical on Sunday.
Those are my 4 keys. As always, thoughts below...