In a bit of a scheduling oddity, the Patriots haven't yet played the Miami Dolphins, a division rival, through 12 weeks of play. But that changes on Sunday as the red-hot Patriots will head south to take on the Fins for the first of two games in a span of 28 days.
While the Patriots look on their way to yet another AFC East division title (a win on Sunday would clinch it), the Dolphins are a surprising contender to make the playoffs in the AFC, standing at 5-6 and just one game out of a wild-card berth. That puts the team far ahead of the schedule many expected them to be on as new head coach Joe Philbin took over a team that won just six games in 2011.
Sunday's game is yet another measuring stick contest for Miami.
Despite familiarity with the Dolphins from previous seasons, here's a brief introduction to the team that continues to develop each week:
Record: 5-6 (second in AFC East)
Head coach: Joe Philbin (first season, 5-6)
Offensive coordinator: Mike Sherman
Defensive coordinator: Kevin Coyle
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Ryan Tannehill. The pre-draft buzz surrounding quarterbacks centered (deservedly so) around Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but Tannehill, the eighth overall pick, has injected optimism into the Dolphins franchise after an impressive start. He was tremendous in guiding Miami to a come-from-behind win in Week 12 (his first fourth-quarter comeback as a pro), and is a good fit in Sherman's offense having played for him while at Texas A&M. He's a mobile player who can hurt a defense with his feet, but is also on pace for more than 3,000 yards passing this season.
2. C Mike Pouncey. The second-year player is a force along the interior of the Dolphins' offensive line, setting the tempo for the offense and providing tremendous protection to Tannehill. He's the twin brother of Steelers standout cetner Maurkice Pouncey, and both play with a ton of attitude and "nasty." The matchup between Pouncey and nose tackle Vince Wilfork will be worth keeping an eye on.
3. RB Reggie Bush. All the way back in Week 3, Bush suffered a knee injury that has seemed to slow him since. Nonetheless, he remains a dangerous athlete and a productive player as both a runner and a receiver. He's proven since he arrived in Miami that he can get the job done between the tackles, and carved the Seahawks up for more than six yards a carry in Week 12.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. DE Cameron Wake. Another week, another lethal pass-rushing threat for the Patriots to face. Wake leads the Dolphins with 9.5 sacks, and is one of the best combination of power/quickness rushers in the NFL. The 30-year old bounced around the CFL before landing on his feet with Miami, and has been a key contributor ever since. He's a force off the edge, and a player that Tom Brady will have to identify before the snap on every play.
2. LB Karlos Dansby. Miami's linebackers are very good, and Dansby is a player who seems to be around the ball on every play. He's already notched 76 tackles this season, and can also defend the pass as a coverage linebacker in man-to-man and zone schemes. Miami has transitioned from a 3-4 to a 4-3 this season, and Dansby, Kevin Burnett and Koa Misi give them a dependable trio to man the second level of defense.
3. DL Randy Starks. The numbers don't tell the whole story on Starks, a nine-year veteran who is a rock in the middle of the Dolphins' defense. He's a tough player to move around, and can defend the run as well as apply pressure as a rusher (he has 4.5 sacks this season). A player who can handle responsbilities in both a 3-4 and a 4-3, Starks qualifies as underrated. He's a good one.
2012 RECAP THROUGH 11 GAMES
It's been a series of mini-streaks for the Dolphins in 2012, who recently sandwiched a three-game winning streak with two losses before it and three after it. They got back on track with a huge home win against Seattle on Sunday, and suddenly find themselves just one game behind Pittsburgh for the final wild-card spot in the AFC. As previously mentioned, the Dolphins have exceeded expectations in 2012, as Tannehill has helped to make this group more competitve than many expected it to be. The strength of the Dolphins remains their defense, which has been similar to the Patriots in that it's been far superior against the run than the pass. While it's too soon to confidently assert the Dolphins as a major threat to the Patriots in the division, this team surely looks to have leapfrogged both Buffalo and New York as the second best. About a year ago at this time, that seemed like a longshot.