New England Patriots: Miami Dolphins

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC East

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.

Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.

Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.

The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?



Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.

Mike Reiss: Is it possible for someone to go from a Coach of the Year candidate last December to the hot seat in late July? It shouldn't be, but that is the situation in which Dolphins coach Joe Philbin finds himself. I thought Philbin deserved a lot of credit for keeping things together last season, and after the Dolphins beat the Patriots in mid-December many were singing his praises. But the team sputtered the final two weeks of the season and now Philbin, entering his third season, could be viewed as having the hottest seat among AFC East coaches. Crazy business, this NFL.

Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.

James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.


Second Down

Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?



Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.

Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.

Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.

Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?



Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.

Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.

Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.

Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.


Fourth Down

How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?



Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.

Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.

Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.

Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.

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Live blog: Patriots at Dolphins

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
10:00
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New England Patriots' visit to the Miami Dolphins. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 
Tom Brady and Daniel ThomasGetty ImagesWill Tom Brady lead another comeback or will Daniel Thomas' Dolphins defend their home field?

The biggest game in the AFC East this season takes place Sunday in Miami, where the New England Patriots (10-3) will travel to face the Dolphins (7-6).

The Patriots are trying to secure one of the top two seeds in the conference and a first-round bye. New England also can clinch its fifth consecutive division title.

Miami, on the other hand, is one of four teams fighting for the AFC's final wild-card spot. The Dolphins have little margin for error and need another victory.

Who will prevail in this AFC East showdown? ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.

James Walker: Mike, this is our second go-around this year. But a lot has changed since New England's 27-17 victory in Week 8. The Dolphins have gone through an immense bullying and harassment controversy involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and the Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the year with a knee injury.

Still, both teams have positioned themselves well down the stretch. The Dolphins are looking at this game to make a potential statement. They know a lot of outsiders nationally will see them as a serious playoff contender with a win over the Patriots. Miami spent the entire offseason trying to close the gap, and this is a good time for the Dolphins to prove they made progress.

Mike, the Patriots played without Gronkowski before. But New England doesn't have the proven weapons of previous years. How will the Patriots adjust?

Mike Reiss: Coaches and players have said the same thing -- there is no one player who can replace Gronkowski. He is too special and too unique of a talent. One thing that stood out since Gronkowski's return Oct. 20 was the diversity of personnel groupings the Patriots were calling on with success. Against the Steelers on Nov. 3, they scored six of their seven touchdowns out of different groupings. That is unlikely to be the case going forward, as they'll have to rely more on their receivers and running backs, while asking backup tight ends Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams to do their part.

I'm thinking big-picture here, James. From afar, it seemed like the Incognito-Martin incident could have brought the Dolphins down. So how have they been able to overcome it?

Walker: The Dolphins showed two key characteristics: character and resilience. Miami could have packed it in, especially after losing to the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on "Monday Night Football." But since then, Miami has won three of four, and I think a lot of credit goes to Joe Philbin. The second-year head coach has never wavered through tough times. He remained the same person to his players and never pushed the panic button. That even-keeled mindset permeated the Dolphins' locker room and kept them focused.

Mike, how do you explain New England's penchant for second-half comebacks? Miami got a taste of that in October and is trying to avoid the same result this week.

Reiss: Much like Philbin, whose personal resilience was evident to those who followed his coaching career as he made his way up the ranks in the New England region, this Patriots team has something special about it. It is probably their most admirable quality -- if you're going to beat them, it is going to have to be a knockout. They fight you and keep scrapping for the full 60 minutes. What we saw last Sunday against the Browns was the equivalent of the boxing referee standing over them and giving them a 10 count as they were down on the mat: 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 9.5 ... and at the last moment they spring back up and record the improbable victory. It's a dangerous way to live. It's also maddening at times for the team's fans to watch them play so poorly early in games. But they have good leadership, good depth and, as usual, they're in the playoff hunt.

The Patriots' defense has been vulnerable in recent weeks. What do you see from the Dolphins' offense that might allow them to exploit that defense and record the win?

Walker: Well, the Dolphins are running as well as they have all season. Miami gained a season-high 181 rushing yards in last week's win over the Steelers. The ground game hasn't become an area of strength until recently. Miami should have some success running against New England's 31st-ranked run defense. The Dolphins' passing game also is more efficient. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing solid down the stretch and spreading the ball around. Miami is on pace to have three players -- tight end Charles Clay and receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline -- get 70 or more catches this year. That has made it hard on opponents to key on one player. Clay, in particular, has come on strong as of late. He has developed into not only a good threat in the middle of the field, but also in the red zone. Clay leads Miami with seven total touchdowns (six receiving, one rushing).

Finally, Mike, the Patriots have had their struggles on the road this year. All three losses, to the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, have been away from Gillette Stadium. Which Patriots team do you expect to show up in Miami on Sunday?

Reiss: The Patriots were still in all three of those games, with a chance to win each right up until the end, so that's where I would start. We should probably expect a close game. Slow starts have been an issue for the Patriots and many wonder when that will finally catch up to them, and I could see Miami being a team that capitalizes on that. These are two of the NFL's least-penalized teams, Miami is fighting to keep its playoff hopes alive, and the Patriots are depleted and recalibrating after the loss of Gronkowski. Turnovers will be the difference-maker if the Patriots are to win it.

Live blog: Dolphins at Patriots

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Miami Dolphins' visit to the New England Patriots. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1:00 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Highlighting Patriots-Dolphins connections

October, 25, 2013
10/25/13
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Each week, we use this space to highlight connections between the Patriots' upcoming opponent and the organization.

In the case of the Dolphins, while there are few players and coaches who previously worked for the Patriots organization, there are some prominent Dolphins figures who have direct ties to Massachusetts, highlighted below.


Offensive tackle Will Yeatman. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent tight end out of Maryland by the Patriots, Yeatman, who was a two-sport star in college (he was also a standout lacrosse player), was claimed by Miami off of waivers in 2011 at the end of training camp and has since transitioned to an offensive tackle role. Though he has yet to see regular playing time, he remains an intriguing developmental prospect.

Head coach Joe Philbin. A native of Springfield, Mass., Philbin attended Longmeadow High School. His coaching career has included stops at local institutions such as Harvard, Northeastern and WPI. It was during Philbin’s post-graduate year at Worcester Academy that he would develop an important relationship that has sustained to this day ...

Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. A Norwood, Mass., native, Sherman cut his teeth as a young coach at Worcester Academy, where he would coach Philbin. When Sherman was the Packers head coach from 2000 to 2005, he hired Philbin as an assistant offensive line coach in 2003. Philbin would rise through the ranks and land a head coaching job last offseason, at which point he hired Sherman to be his offensive coordinator after he was let go by Texas A&M.

Double Coverage: Dolphins at Patriots

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
12:00
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Gronkowski-TannehillUSA TODAY SportsRob Gronkowski's second game this season will be against Ryan Tannehill and the sliding Dolphins.
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At the start of the 2013 season, a hot-button question was which AFC East team was closest to contending with the New England Patriots for the division championship. Most seemed to agree it was the Miami Dolphins, who were as aggressive as any NFL team in reshaping their roster in the offseason.

But through seven weeks of the regular season, the picture looks a bit different than many projected.

First, the Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East doesn't seem as strong as it has been for long stretches since 2001, a span in which they have posted a 61-16 record against division foes. They are coming off a surprising 30-27 overtime road loss to the New York Jets to drop to 5-2.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins opened the year with three straight wins, but have slid back to the pack with three straight losses, the latest a surprising setback to the visiting Buffalo Bills this past Sunday 23-21.

Could the Bills and Jets be further along than the Dolphins? And are the Patriots suddenly vulnerable?

Those are topical questions to ask as the Dolphins prepare to visit the Patriots on Sunday (1 p.m. ET), and NFL Nation Dolphins reporter James Walker and NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss help us break it down:

Reiss: James, let's start by giving Patriots followers a feel for where things have broken down for the Dolphins.

Walker: Where do I start, Mike? Not much has gone right for the Dolphins since their 3-0 start. The biggest problems have been on offense. With the exception of last week against Buffalo, the running game was non-existent. That made the Dolphins one-dimensional and very pass-heavy. That also let opponents know they can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. Miami has allowed 26 quarterback sacks in six games, and a majority occurred in the second halves and fourth quarters when the Dolphins quit early on the running game. The lack of pass protection and an inconsistent running game put a lot of pressure on second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is trying too hard. He has seven turnovers -- five interceptions, two lost fumbles -- in the past three games. Tannehill has a lot of potential, but he's not ready to carry the Dolphins' offense by himself. The issues around him must improve, which is why the Dolphins traded this week for veteran offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.

Mike, one of the biggest concerns for Miami this week is stopping Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. How did Gronkowski look in his first game back and what do you expect in his second game?

Reiss: Gronkowski was an immediate difference-maker, playing 51 of 79 offensive snaps (including penalties). So the first thing to look at this week is just his workload, which should gradually increase. When healthy, Gronkowski seldom comes off the field. As for his production, all we have to do is look at how many times he was targeted by Tom Brady against the Jets -- 17 times. And, of course, he finished with the eight catches for 114 yards. The Patriots are obviously a better team with Gronkowski, and it showed up Sunday, specifically in the red zone where the space gets tight. Tell us more about the Dolphins' defense and how they might defend him.

Walker: My feeling is Miami will try to go conventional and let the linebackers and occasionally the safety cover Gronkowski. Dolphins safety Reshad Jones hasn't been great in coverage this season, but he's playing much better the past two weeks. I think the Dolphins should get creative with Gronkowski. One option is to have rookie defensive end and athletic No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan line up on Gronkowski at times. Jordan is long, athletic and can be physical with Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage. That would be a good curveball. According to defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, Miami's primary focus is not to worry about the receptions but to prevent the vertical plays. The Dolphins want to keep Gronkowski in front of them.

Mike, New England's defense started fast but has allowed 57 points in the past two games. Have injuries caught up with this group?

Reiss: In a word, yes. It is still a good unit but naturally not the same without players like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, which has forced the coaching staff to shuffle things around. The Patriots were also without cornerback Aqib Talib on Sunday, and I think he's been their best defender this season. We'll see if he's back this week from a hip injury. Overall, it's still a well-coached unit and they create turnovers, as evidenced by their streak of 34 straight games with at least one. I'm sure one of the things that will be watched closely here in New England is what type of impact receiver Mike Wallace has on the game. Some followers of the team would have loved to see the Patriots sign him as a free agent, especially in light of the struggles the offense is having this season. How would you assess Wallace's impact in Miami? Are they happy with the signing?

Walker: It's been a work in progress, Mike. The sense I get is it's still a feeling out process with the coaches in terms of how to use Wallace to the best of his abilities. He's a unique receiver with speed. Yet, the Dolphins don't have enough pass protection to allow Wallace to run enough “nine routes” down the field. It hasn't always been a match. But Miami is starting to do a better job of getting Wallace the football in other ways. The Dolphins have run more screens, slants and reverses to keep him involved. Wallace has had his best games this year when he gets a couple of receptions early. That's happened against Indianapolis and Baltimore, which were Wallace's two 100-yard games. If the Dolphins want to have a chance of pulling off the upset, they need at least one or two big plays from Wallace in game.

Finally, Mike, the Patriots are 5-2 but don't look as dominant as previous years. The Dolphins are struggling. But is the AFC East as a whole closing the gap on New England this year?

Reiss: That's a good question, James, and I think this game Sunday will help us better answer it. The Patriots went down to the wire with the Bills in the season-opener and had two down-to-the-wire games with the Jets. If the same thing happens with the Dolphins, that would be some pretty good evidence to suggest that the gap in the division is indeed closing. And yet then, we are reminded of this time last year when every team in the division was 3-3 and we thought the gap had closed. Turns out that wasn't the case. That's why I view things more through a short-term lens and spotlight this as an important game for the Patriots from an AFC East perspective as they could improve to 3-1 in the division, with division games remaining at the Dolphins (Dec. 15) and home against the Bills (Dec. 29).

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Patriots on radar at Dolphins' camp

July, 22, 2013
7/22/13
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Earlier this offseason, new Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe made comments suggesting that the Patriots were vulnerable in the AFC East this year after an at-times trying offseason.

Despite losing key members of the offense and dealing with notable injuries entering training camp, the Patriots still have Tom Brady under center and Bill Belichick on the sideline, and according to Ellerbe's teammate, receiver Mike Wallace, that alone makes them dangerous.

"As long as they have No. 12 (Tom Brady) behind center, anything's possible," the speedy wideout told Tom Pelissero of USA Today. "As long as they have Coach (Bill) Belichick up there, man, you never count those guys out."

Fellow newcomer Brent Grimes echoed Wallace's statement, saying, "You never want to lose key pieces to your team -- any team. But that team has proven time and time again that they can overcome adversity and be a good team."

The Dolphins are widely considered to be the Patriots' stiffest competition in the AFC East, a division New England has won each of the past four years. Miami not only has a promising second-year quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, it was also one of the most proactive teams in free agency.

Though the team appears to have improved this offseason, there are questions as to how much the new pieces will narrow the gap between the Dolphins and the Patriots, who finished five games better than Miami last season.

We'll find out come Oct. 27, when the Patriots host the Dolphins in Week 8 action.

Double Coverage: Patriots vs. Dolphins

June, 21, 2013
6/21/13
5:13
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The New England Patriots have been the dominant force in the AFC East for the past dozen years. Since head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady formed their power pairing in 2001, the Patriots have won 10 division titles, made five Super Bowl appearances and won three championships.

No AFC East team has come close to matching New England’s consistency over that span. But there appears to be a young, up-and-coming group on the horizon in the Miami Dolphins, who were very aggressive this offseason. Miami spent more than $200 million in free-agent contracts, including $117 million in guaranteed money, and traded up to get No. 3 overall draft pick Dion Jordan to boost its pass rush. The Dolphins made all of their offseason moves with the goal of closing the gap with New England.

Can Miami provide a legitimate threat to the Patriots in 2013?

ESPN.com AFC East blogger James Walker and ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss debate HERE.

Picked-up pieces from first-half review

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
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After re-watching the first half of the Patriots' Week 17 win over the Dolphins, passing along picked up notes and observations.

1. The influence of tight end Rob Gronkowski extended beyond catches and yards yesterday, as his presence was felt from the moment he stepped back on the field. On the very first snap of the game, the Dolphins looked to be in Cover 3 defense, with four defenders playing the underneath part of the field. Tight end Aaron Hernandez aligned to the same side as Gronkowski, splitting out wide. Gronkowski ran a vertical route up the seam, while Hernandez ran an inward-breaking route underneath Gronk. The hook-curl zone player in the area of the route combination had carried Gronkowski up the field, opening up space for Hernandez. On the very next play, the Dolphins looked to be playing man defense with two over-the-top safeties. Gronk was picked up by a linebacker near the line of scrimmage, but a safety also came crashing down to bracket him over the top. That left running back Danny Woodhead with ample space up the right sideline, and he took a short pass for big yardage down the field. Whether or not he's catching a pass, Gronkowski still alters nearly every play.

2. The Patriots aren't often aligned in a 3-4 front, but the principle of two-gap control hasn't been tossed away from their defensive playbook as a result of it. On the Dolphins’ first offensive play of the game, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork engaged his blocker, rode him laterally down the line, staying square and maintaining leverage on the block before finally disengaging and wrapping up running back Reggie Bush for virtually no gain. The form was, unsurprisingly, textbook from Wilfork, and a reminder of the way the Patriots have long worked to defend the run -- with discipline, technique-based defense. They aren't a gap-shooting team, although they have incorporated more linebacker stunts against the run, which Brandon Spikes ran on the first play. The run defense starts with Wilfork, and he almost always makes it count.

3. On a day in which blustering winds made kicking a difficult chore, Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko landed one of his better punts, albeit one of his shortest too, of the season. Facing the north end zone of Gillette Stadium, where a large opening invites additional winds, Mesko skied a 25-yard punt to pin the Dolphins at their own eight-yard line. Earlier in the game, we saw the Patriots go for it on 4th & 6 from the Dolphins 24-yard line rather than attempt a 40-plus yard field goal, and then we saw Miami try a field goal and see the ball hook right-to-left. The conditions were undeniably tough, so credit Mesko for coming up with a big kick -- even if it wasn't a long one.

4. Strong read by safety Steve Gregory on his first-quarter interception, as he was a roaming defender with the Patriots playing man coverage across the board on the Dolphins four targets in the pattern. The Patriots rushed six players up front, forcing a quick throw from Ryan Tannehill, and Gregory stepped in front of it with the help of very good underneath coverage from cornerback Kyle Arrington. Gregory has shown himself to be at his best in a center field, free safety role, particularly defending the intermediate passing game, where all three of his picks this year have come.

5. Breaking down the touchdown throw to Wes Welker that followed the Gregory interception: Welker motioned from left to right prior to the snap, closing in on the end of the line. That created a modified bunch formation with Gronkowski and Hernandez, and the Dolphins appeared to counter with a combination coverage featuring man coverage on the perimeter and zone coverage in the middle of the field. Two linebackers had underneath coverage, while two safeties worked over the top. Welker continued on his path at the snap, pressing down the line before almost sneaking in front of the linebacker and safety to the left side of the field. Tracking a motioning player can be difficult for a defensive player, and Welker was untouched on his way to the end zone.

6. Screen throws, even though short in distance, are difficult ones for quarterbacks to make. They require touch, anticipation, and, of course, accuracy. Brady hit Woodhead on a screen with just under two minutes left in the first quarter on what was a terrific throw. Defensive tackle Paul Soliai sniffed the screen out early and was in the vicinity of Woodhead, but Brady placed the football on Woodhead's outside shoulder, far enough from Soliai to not make a play, and in a spot that started Woodhead's momentum toward the sidelines, not toward the middle of the field. The result was a big gain due to some strong downfield blocking, but don't overlook the throw, even one that traveled less than 10 yards.

7. Digging back into the Week 13 archives, some will remember the Patriots being fortunate when Tannehill missed receiver Brian Hartline down the field on what looked like a coverage bust. Yesterday, the Patriots were once again fortunate when Tannehill missed a wide open receiver down the field, but it wasn't a result of a coverage bust, just poor coverage. Safety Tavon Wilson was beaten at the top of the route from Bush, who had a few steps on him down the field, but Tannehill was way off the mark with his throw. The secondary played solid on the whole yesterday, but caught a break on that play.

8. A thought on the vertical routes run by receiver Brandon Lloyd: it often seems as though Lloyd runs his routes tight to the sideline, which doesn't give him much room for error in the event that a throw is slightly off the mark. It also doesn't give him much room to work with when he does catch the football. The line of the route is due in part to the coverage he faces, but it seems as though Lloyd could do well to try to work slightly closer to the middle of the field on his downfield routes to open up more space for big plays.

9. The Patriots got tricky on a 3rd & 1 play with just under six minutes to play in the first half, calling for a direct snap to running back Stevan Ridley while Brady was simulating calling for an adjustment. The key, formationally, was that Brady's motion was not toward the line of scrimmage. As the ball was snapped, Brady was moving laterally (perhaps even a bit backwards), which kept the motion legal.

10. Some of it was due to penalties (which took additional time off the clock), but the clock management by the Patriots on their final drive of the first half was outstanding: 14 plays, 6:24 taken off the clock, and the Dolphins were left with just a single timeout and 1:00 on the clock for their final possession. The Patriots converted on key third downs, ran the ball effectively with three different backs and worked the play clock masterfully. There have been a couple of clock management situations at the end of halves earlier in the year that haven't worked out exactly as planned, but the Patriots ironed out the details and made things click on the final possession.

Source: Gronk ups his workload at practice

December, 28, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Over the past two days, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski increased his practice participation to a level at which he would play during a normal week, according to a source familiar with how the team’s practice repetitions were divided.

This strengthens the possibility that he could suit up in the regular-season finale Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, the source said. One possibility to keep in mind, however, is if coach Bill Belichick alters his approach with personnel based on playoff interests, such as limiting the action of some players so they’re at their best whenever the Patriots do play in the playoffs.

Gronkowski broke his forearm late in the Patriots' win against the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18 and has missed the team’s past five games. He was listed as having limited practice participation on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and is one of 20 Patriots players listed as questionable for Sunday.

After returning to practice Dec. 14, he has been listed as questionable for each of the past two games (not counting this week) and was inactive for both.

When asked Wednesday whether he thought it was important for Gronkowski to get snaps Sunday in order to prepare him for the playoffs, Belichick said any decision on his playing will be made strictly for medical reasons. He reiterated Friday that the tight end’s status remains a medical decision.

"When the doctors clear me, when the training staff clears me, when I'm medically ready to play and they let me play, I'm sure that's when I'll be out there," Gronkowski said Wednesday in his first public comments since the injury.

The Patriots should know before they take the field (4:25 p.m. start) what kind of shot they’ll have at earning a first-round bye. The Houston Texans face the Indianapolis Colts at 1 p.m. If Houston loses that game, New England would grab a top-two seed and a bye with a win over Miami. The Patriots could also earn a bye with a win and a loss by the Denver Broncos, who host the Kansas City Chiefs at 4:25 p.m.

Gronk among 20 Pats listed as questionable

December, 28, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip) was among 20 players listed as questionable for Sunday's regular season finale against the Miami Dolphins.

Gronkowski, who has not played since Nov. 18, when he broke his forearm, exited the practice fields on Friday with the rest of his teammates. He was listed as limited in practice all week in his second full week of practice after returning from the injury.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick reiterated Friday that that Gronkowski's status for Week 17 remains a medical decision.

Cornerback Marquice Cole (finger) was listed as doubtful after not practicing for a second straight day on Friday.

Guess the game plan: Patriots-Dolphins

December, 28, 2012
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PatriotsDolphinsThese Patriots are not an easy bunch to figure out. One week they’ll try to ram the ball down an opponent’s throat with the run, the next they’ll spread it out and attack through the air, and they’ll follow that with an ultra hurry-up approach to rattle a defense and open up holes. What’ll it be in Sunday’s regular season finale with the stakes not fully clear at kickoff? Our three Patriots reporters try to get into the mind of Bill Belichick and guess the game plan.

Share your thoughts on how the Pats should attack or defend the Dolphins in the comments section.

Mike Reiss: Starting fast is the key; up the tempo


[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackWe might see a lot of Danny Woodhead on Sunday, as he has been the team's best running back in pass protection.
However Belichick decides to manage his roster with playoff interests in mind, one thing seems certain: Most top players will at least be out there for the beginning of the game, with a focus on better execution early.

After two straight weeks in which the Patriots didn’t open the game as they desired, look for a faster start this time with an up-tempo approach that sets an early tone. Sometimes upping the tempo can serve as a spark. The Dolphins have a tough defense but if the Patriots can pounce on them early, it might be a situation in which they lose some of their edge in a Northeast finale in cold conditions.

The idea of establishing the run early to set up play-action would be ideal for the Patriots, aiding in protecting quarterback Tom Brady better than the team has the last few weeks. Extra attention must also be paid to defensive end Cameron Wake in the pass rush, with running backs assisting with chips, or tight ends aligned next to the tackle to potentially provide help.

This could be a game where we see more of Danny Woodhead at running back, as he has arguably been the team’s best pass-protecting back.

Mike Rodak: Pass protection should be a focus



At this point in the season, there's not a whole lot the Patriots will change with their offense. Whether Rob Gronkowski plays on Sunday shouldn't have a big effect on what the Patriots try to do against the Dolphins.

There's a few things the Patriots need to get squared away, though, before the playoffs. The first is their pass protection, which has slipped in recent weeks, allowing six sacks in the past two games. The last time the Patriots played Miami, Brady was sacked four times. The obvious question, then, is whether the Patriots can improve on their last performance.

Similarly, the passing offense as a whole struggled against the Jaguars last week, especially early in the game. Momentum, timing, and rhythm are always a big part of any offense, and reestablishing a groove between Tom Brady and Aaron Hernandez (5 targets, 1 catch vs. Jacksonville) should be on the checklist for Sunday.

Finally, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Patriots' four losses this season have all come when they've rushed for less than 100 yards. The running game will be a key part of the Patriots' potential success in the playoffs, and continuing to build back Stevan Ridley's confidence with the football after fumbling issues earlier this month is something that can be in the game plan against the Dolphins.

Field Yates: Start fast and eliminate turnovers



Two concerns have prevailed over a two-week stretch in which the Patriots fell to the 49ers and narrowly defeated the Jaguars: slow starts and turnovers.

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The Patriots fell behind 31-3 against San Francisco and allowed 202 yards in the first quarter to the Jaguars, digging themselves a 10-0 hole and keeping the less-talented team in the game.

When the Patriots take the field this Sunday against Miami, the focus must not be on just winning, but playing as effectively in the first quarter as they have at earlier points this season. The Patriots offense needs to find its rhythm and flow as soon as the opening drive, and the defense must be ready to match the efficiency and keep Miami at bay.

The Patriots remain head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL in turnover differential, but have more turnovers of their own (six) than turnovers forced (five) over the past two weeks. Brady has made some uncharacteristic throws in that time that have led to four interceptions, half of his total for the season.

Turnovers are an equalizer in the NFL, and the Patriots need to revert to their protective ways that carried them to a recent seven-game winning streak.

As it relates to Miami, the Patriots will key on Wake and the pressure created by the Dolphins’ front four. Wake had two sacks in a Week 13 meeting, and is the type of player that can disrupt a pocket on his own.

Slowing Wake down is no small task, but right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has shown himself as capable to deter top-flight rushers for much of 2012.

ESPN Boston's picks: Patriots-Dolphins

December, 28, 2012
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Here's how ESPNBoston.com's experts see Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game (4:25 p.m. ET, on CBS) playing out. What's your prediction? Leave your pick in the comments section.

Video: AccuScore report for Pats-Dolphins

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
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In the video above, Cary Chow goes inside the numbers to see how Sunday's Patriots-Dolphins game (4:25 p.m., CBS) plays out in AccuScore game simulations.

Among the findings:

* The Patriots won 71 percent of more than 10,000 AccuScore simulations by an average score of 26-18.

* The Dolphins are holding the Patriots to under 30 points in 60 percent of simulations. If Miami does hold New England under 30 points, its chances of victory improve from 29 to 45 percent.

* In sims in which Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill does not throw an interception and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws at least one, the game becomes a 50-50 coin flip. But if Tannehill throws more picks than Brady, the Patriots are overwhelming 85 percent favorites.

Cole's absence only change in Pats' report

December, 27, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots had just one change to their Thursday injury report, with cornerback Marquice Cole not practicing after being limited in Wednesday's walk-through practice.

Here are the practice reports for both the Patriots and Dolphins:


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