It's been two-and-a-half months since Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dismantled an unprepared, out-of-shape Dolphins defense on the first Monday Night Football game of the season, but a lot has changed with this Miami team since early September. For one, Matt Moore is under center for the Dolphins now, and should have little problem finding ways to exploit a Patriots defense that is ranked 32nd overall (see: dead last). Two, Reggie Bush has gone from iffy No.1 running back to a bona-fide killer in the Dolphins' backfield. And last, but certainly not least, Miami's defense has found its groove, thanks to the world-class contributions of linebackers Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby, defensive end Jared Odrick and cornerback Vontae Davis.
However, this is a Patriots team that Miami hasn't beaten since 2009. If the Dolphins want to put an end to that streak, they'll need to win a few of these key match-ups on Saturday afternoon ...
Brandon Marshall vs. Patriots' secondary
After watching Willis McGahee run through the Pats like diarrhea last week, I feel confident in the assumption that Bush is going to reach berserker mode in Foxborough on Saturday (New England is currently surrendering 117.6 rushing yards per game). What I'd like to see in this game, however, is a massive performance by Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall. The Pats' secondary is a sad, sad unit right now, and I can practically guarantee that the last thing their defensive backs want to see is an angry, 6'4", 230-pound receiver. Matt Moore has the arm to get Marshall the ball all over the field, and a little less of the underneath throws and a little more of the go-up-and-get-it tosses would be a welcome sight during this contest. After all, the Patriots are giving up nearly 300 yards in the air each week.
Dolphins' pass rush vs. Patriots' offensive line
A big reason why Tom Brady was able to go upside the Dolphins' heads in Week 1 was because Miami barely got a hand on the guy during the game. One sack and three quarterback hits isn't going to get it done when you're playing the Patriots, and that's how No.12 ended up with the staggering stat line of 32/48 for 517 yards and four touchdowns. Ouch. Luckily for Miami, their pass rush has come into its own as of late, notching 20 sacks over the last seven games. The focal point in this match-up has to be Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake, who struggled big time against Patriots rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder the last time the two teams met. Solder is an outstanding young lineman, but there's no reason why the Earth-Wake should be smacked around by a rookie who is currently considered undersized, weight-wise, for his position. Miami's defense is a tough out when Wake is constantly threatening off the edge, so No.91 needs to make it rain at Gillette Stadium this weekend.
Joining Wake as a legitimate pass rusher is defensive end Jared Odrick, who quickly shed the "potential bust due to injury" tag this season by Pee Wee dancing his way to five sacks, a forced fumble and a pick (off of Brady in Week 1, believe it or not). Odrick has flashed the ability to both bull rush or swim his way to the quarterback, and also holds up very well against the run (as any 3-4 DE should); he'll have to be a factor in both areas if the Dolphins want to make things uncomfortable for the Patriots' offense.
Dolphins' defense vs. Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez
Dolphins fans should be worried that Rob Gronkowski is coming off a very quiet performance against Denver last Sunday (mainly due to the Broncos relentlessly double teaming the all-world tight end). Instead of forcing throws to Gronkowski, Tom Brady made ample use of Aaron Hernandez and managed to get him the ball in space, which is where Hernandez does his best work. Look for this pick-your-poison strategy to be in effect against the Dolphins, too. Miami has greatly improved its ability to cover opposing tight ends (honestly, they couldn't have gotten much worse in that area), but this tight end duo is big, fast, opportunistic and utterly ruthless. For the Dolphins, it starts with clobbering these two guys at the line of scrimmage and forcing them to try to make plays in tight, high-traffic areas. Miami's inside linebackers have the speed and instincts to stay with Gronkowski and Hernandez. Our safeties? That's a different story.
Prediction: Dolphins 33, Patriots 28