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Dolphins vs Patriots: 5 Burning Questions

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Is it just me or is this week moving along very slowly?  I guess it's just the anticipation getting to me.  After all, this game is the biggest game in years for the Dolphins.

So, as we do every week, let's talk about some of the key questions for Sunday/s game:

What will be Miami's gameplan on offense this time?
We all remember back in week 3 when the Dolphins just dominated the Patriots up in New England, scoring 38 points on NE's defense.  And we all know that this was the game Miami debuted the 'Wildcat.'  And while the new formation did account for 119 yards on 6 plays - 4 of which were touchdowns - the Dolphins still moved the ball out of their base offense as well.  The Dolphins didn't "wildcat" their way to 461 yards of offense.  Chad Pennington didn't attempt one throw out of the formation, but still managed to go 17/20 for 226 yards.

So what's the plan for this week?  We know that there are still things the Dolphins can do out of the 'Wildcat' formation that nobody has seen yet.  And Dan Henning can also dial up some other surprise plays - a la Ted Ginn's reverse.  But the base offense has been pretty damn good, too.  Ted Ginn, in particular, has developed into a dangerous threat on offense - totaling 30 catches for 433 yards in 7 games since these 2 teams last met.  And Chad Pennington now has a much better grasp of the offense since week 3.  He's averaged 255 yards passing per game (and 8.2 yards per attempt) since their first meeting.

So what the Dolphins do this time around?  That's what we're all dying to see.

How will the Dolphins handle the spotlight of an enormous "playoff-like" game against a bitter division rival?
The Dolphins really have passed every test that has been thrown at them so far this season.  We wanted to know how this team would respond to being 0-2.  They won their next two games.

Then we wanted to see if the Dolphins could put together a game-sealing drive when they needed to kill the clock.  They successfully accomplished that feat against the Chargers. 

Then we were curious to see how the team would respond to two consecutive losses after getting the taste of success in their mouths.  They responded with 4 consecutive wins - including a knocking off a divisional opponent that came to Miami 5-1 and winning a game in a hostile environment in Denver.  Included in this 4 game win streak, the Dolphins also answered another question.  Could they come from behind late in the 4th quarter?  On Sunday against the Raiders, this team did just that.

But now they face a divisional opponent for the 2nd time this season.  In their first meeting, the Dolphins simply embarrassed the Patriots up in their own stadium.  You think Bill Belichick and his players have forgotten the 38-13 beatdown the Dolphins handed them in week 3?  Not a chance.

Throw in the fact that this game is essentially an early playoff game - where the loser faces a much tougher uphill battle into the postseason - and what you got is simply the biggest game that many of these Dolphin players have ever played in.  And it's the kind of game where Chad Pennington's leadership will be a key factor.

With the spotlight squarely on South Florida, how is this team going to respond?

Will the Dolphins again make this game a nightmare for Matt Cassel?
Back in week 3, Matt Cassel was making just his 2nd career NFL start - and was the first time he was starting any football game since high school.  The Dolphins obvious gameplan - one which Joey Porter made very clear - was to rattle Cassel and make him uncomfortable all game long.  It worked.  The Dolphins sacked Cassel 5 times - 4 of which by Porter himself - recovered a Cassel fumble, and intercepted a Cassel pass.  Cassel ended the game with just 131 yards passing, going 19/31.

But Cassel has improved since then.  He's gained valuable experience and has gotten more comfortable on the field.  He's averaged 250 yards passing per game since then and has thrown 8 touchdowns to 6 interceptions.  And last week in their Thursday night game, Cassel threw for 400 yards, 3 touchdowns, no interceptions, and led a comeback from 18 points back, including a last minute, game-tying TD drive.

However, he still gets sacked a ton.  The Patriots have allowed 22 sacks since week 3 - a very high number.  And on the season, the Pats have surrendered the 5th most sacks in the league.  That's good news for the NFL's sack leader, Joey Porter, and the rest of Miami's impressive pass rush.  The Fins are 7th in the NFL in sacks and will likely be aggressive again on Sunday, pinning their ears back and getting after Cassel.

Can the Dolphins avoid falling in line with the history that goes against them?
Let me explain.  There are a number of stats that, though have no real relevance in terms of how the game plays out on the field, strongly go against the Dolphins heading into this game.

Some of then include:

-The Dolphins haven't swept the season series against the Pats since 2000

-The Patriots have won 16 of their last 17 games when coming off of a loss

-Chad Pennington is 3-5 as a starter against the Pats, and has thrown 9 career interceptions against New England

-The last time the Dolphins and Patriots met with the same amount of wins, the Pats won the game 19-13 (back in '03)

Alright.  So maybe I'm being paranoid.  I guess these past few years have jaded me just a bit.

Will the 12th man be a factor?
This team was once a proud franchise - and getting a ticket to a game at home in Miami was a tough thing to do.  Of course, the disappointments of the last 5 or so seasons have changed that.

But now this team is back and playing a good of football as we have seen in a while.  And now it's time to fill up Dolphin Stadium and gives these players a true home-field advantage.  The players are pleading with us to show up.  They're dying for the help of the 12th man. 

So now is the time to get loud and be proud!