While we'll all admit it was great to knock off the Jets last week and sweep the season series, it's time to now shift our attention to the other divisional rival - the one that actually matters. The Patriots have been the beast of the AFC East for far too long. And even with the Dolphins improbable division title last season, things have shaped up in 2009 like they have shaped up for a while - with the Patriots currently sitting atop the AFC East. On Sunday, the Dolphins will travel up to New England to go toe to toe with the Patriots looking to make a statement.
To get it done, these three matchups will be critical.
Dolphins running game vs Patriots front seven
It's become almost legendary now what the Dolphins did against the Patriots up in Foxborough last season in the first meeting between these two teams - unleashing the 'Wildcat' and running for 216 yards en route to a 25 point thrashing. But in their second meeting down in Miami, the Dolphins were unable to get anything going on the ground, 'Wildcat' or not. They ran for only 66 yards and averaged only 3.7 yards per carry as the Dolphins, who hung with the Patriots for two and a half quarters, just couldn't keep up with the Patriots and their high-scoring offense.
Obviously, the Dolphins can't let themselves get involved in another shoot-out like we saw down in Miami last year. And while the Patriots are ranked 15th in rush defense - surrendering 109 yards per game, which doesn't seem that bad - those numbers are skewed due to the fact that most opponents are trying to keep up with New England's offense and abandon the run too early. They only see roughly 24 rushing attempts per game by opponents. But in the key statistic, yards allowed per rushing attempt, the Patriots are ranked 22nd - surrendering 4.5 yards per attempt. That, my friends, means there's a lot of yardage to be had on the ground.
Of course, everybody is aware that Miami's strength on offense is the running game and the Patriots will obviously stack the box to limit the amount of success Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams can have. That's why it'll be very important for the Dolphins to remain committed to the ground game even if it isn't working with a lot of success early on. Last week, the Dolphins got away from the run too quickly because the Jets were selling out to stop it. That can't happen on Sunday.
In particular, I hope to see a lot of 'Wildcat' on Sunday early and often. And I'm not talking about the jet sweeps or attempted passes. I want to see some of that smash mouth power running that the Dolphins did so well earlier this season. I have faith in Miami's offensive line to come in with the right mindset and play physical enough for the Dolphins to be able to pound the ball up the middle. Let's set the tone early by pounding the rock.
Randy Moss/Wes Welker vs Sean Smith/Vontae Davis/Nate Jones
Welcome to the NFL, rooks. Now go cover the best receiving duo in the game.
It's not going to be an easy task. We all know this. But if the Dolphins are to head up to New England and pull off the upset (a pretty big one, at that, seeing as the Dolphins are 10 point underdogs), then these two talented rookie corners are going to have to play their best games to date.
We've all seen flashes from both Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. But there have still been those typical rookie mistakes - whether their mental or related to technique - that have resulted in big plays. On Sunday, those two will have to face the second best passing offense in the league, led by two receivers who are as talented as they get and who compliment each other well.
I expect to see a rotation of Smith and Davis on Randy Moss. Moss is the tall deep threat who is one of the greatest to ever step on the football field. And both Smith and Davis bring different elements to the table. Smith has outstanding size and ball skills. Davis, though, is the more physical corner. And I hope to see Davis get the opportunity to play tight bump and run coverage on Moss. Vontae has the strength to disrupt the timing between Moss and Tom Brady and to move Moss off of his route. And I think that Vontae's make-up speed allows Davis to play physical at the line with Randy and jam him. However, in the red zone, I hope to see Smith match up on Moss to help prevent any corner or fade routes to the big receiver.
As for Wes Welker, expect to see a lot of Nate Jones on him. Why? Because Welker will primarily line up in the slot and Jones is the team's best slot corner following the season-ending injury to Will Allen. I think that if Welker does line up on the outside, we'll see Davis on him for sure. But when Welker lines up inside and attempts to do what he does best, it'll be Jones - who has come on these past two games - who gets the duty of covering the pesky little receiver.
If nothing else, this should be interesting - and will be an excellent learning experience for the two rookie corners regardless of the outcome.
Chad Henne vs Bill Belichick
This isn't exactly an ideal matchup for a quarterback making just his 5th career start, is it? It's hard enough for a young quarterback to head up to New England. Making things more difficult is the fact that Bill Belichick has had an extra week to game plan for the young kid thanks to New England's bye week. Ouch.
Let's be real here. Belichick is probably going to go out of his way to draw up a variety of defensive looks to confuse Chad Henne. The Patriots don't exactly have outstanding cornerbacks. But they have talented, versatile safeties and one of the greatest minds in the game creating the game plan. That means I expect a number of exotic blitz packages and a variety of disguised coverages to test Henne. In what will be a loud and hostile environment, this is going to be a hell of a test for him.
Sure, it's important for Miami's coaches to do a good job game planning themselves and preparing Henne for what he might see on Sunday. But all the preparation in the world won't matter when it's 3rd & long and the Patriots are lined up with no down linemen, five linebackers, and six defensive backs - shifting around all over prior to the snap as the fans scream their heads off.
Yeah - time to show us what you got, kid.