The Dolphins will head up to New England on Sunday to close out the season against the 13-2 Patriots needing a win to avoid a second consecutive sub .500 season. That's what the Dolphins are playing for on Sunday, folks - to avoid a losing season.
Of course, win or lose, most Dolphin fans would agree that this season has been "lost" for some time. I can't argue that, either. But what I will say is that a win over the Patriots always feels good no matter the circumstances surrounding it. Other than that 2007 disaster, the Dolphins haven't lost both games to the Patriots in a season since 2003.
Richie Incognito vs Vince Wilfork
I could sit here and talk about how the Dolphins need to run the football to keep New England's offense off of the field - and that would be accurate. But this matchup is more about the future than anything. Incognito is a free agent after the season and the Dolphins have a decision to make. Last week, Richie showed some potential as the team's starting center - having a greater impact in three quarters than Joe Berger has had all season. He got to the second level a couple of times and helped Miami's running game show some signs of life after weeks of disappointment.
Now he'll potentially go up against one of the premier nose tackles in the game. This could be Incognito's chance to earn some serious cash. If he can take on Vince with minimal assistance from his teammates, he'll make a statement that he just might be the answer at center for this team.
Patriots' backs and tight ends vs Miami's linebackers
This is obviously the most worrisome matchup for the Dolphins. With Karlos Dansby still suffering from a turf toe injury, the Dolphins will likely be relying on two inside linebackers who are rather poor in coverage against backs and athletic tight ends. Last week without Dansby on the field, the Dolphins surrendered some huge plays to Detroit's Jahvid Best and Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew caught four passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. Best accounted for perhaps the most critical play of the game, a 54 yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter that jump-started their comeback.
Now the Dolphins will have to go up against Patriots' TE Rob Gronkowski - he of the 444 yards and nine touchdowns. They may also have to face TE Aaron Hernandez, who has accounted for 563 yards and six touchdowns. Running back Danny Woodhead, meanwhile, has 379 yards receiving himself and is averaging over 11 yards per reception - a high figure for a back.
It's going to be interesting to see what Mike Nolan comes up with to prevent New England from exploiting this favorable matchup.
KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Feed "The Beast" all game long. Brandon Marshall is nine receptions away from the single-season franchise record and has back-to-back double digit reception games. And in light of Marshall's recent comments about his chemistry on the field with Chad Henne, I'm expecting to see Henne feed "the beast" all game long. Really, though, this should have been a priority all along. Those two need each other. And I don't understand what's taken so long for Henne to trust Marshall and give him some opportunities to make plays. Regardless, I'd be shocked if Marshall didn't see 15 to 20 targets on Sunday. He's Miami's best weapon and has a team record to break -- which should equate to a big day for the physical receiver.
2. Pressure the quarterback. This is nothing more than stating the obvious, I know. But just think about some of Tom Brady's worst performances. They've come when he was under constant duress. Even if you think about Brady's worst games against the Dolphins. All of those have come when Miami's defense consistently harasses the All-Pro quarterback. Of course, this is easier said than done. The Patriots have allowed only 25 sacks this year - the fifth fewest in the league. They surrendered only 18 last year - the third fewest in the league. Over the past two seasons, only the Colts have given up fewer sacks.
The Dolphins, though, did get to Brady three times back in their first meeting of the season. Turnovers and a special teams meltdown, though, cost the Dolphins any shot at a win. Hopefully Sunday is a different story.