The Patriots capitalized on Miami mistakes in the last meeting against the Dolphins, a 23-16 New England victory that clinched the AFC East title less than a month ago. The Patriots scored 17 points off Dolphins mistakes, including a pair of crucial special teams errors. New England also used 7:18 of clock time with an impressive 16-play, 77-yard fourth-quarter scoring drive.
In addition to professional pride and spoiling New England’s seeding hopes, the Dolphins are trying to avoid tying a franchise record with a fourth straight losing season. The Patriots can earn a first-round bye with a win and either Broncos or Texans loss.
Here are three areas to watch on Sunday:
1. The Dolphins’ running game has been boom or bust, flashing an ability to finish drives when Miami backs have avoided fumbling. At times, Miami has moved the ball effectively, rushing for at least 180 yards in five games this season (tied for most in the league). Also, the Dolphins have scored touchdowns in 83.3 percent of goal-to-go situations, the highest percentage in the league. However, ball security concerns have hindered consistent productivity. Only the Eagles and Redskins have more fumbles than the Dolphins (nine), and only Willis McGahee and Jamaal Charles have more fumbles among running backs than Reggie Bush (four). As a result, the Dolphins have rushed for fewer than 100 yards nine times this season, tied for sixth most in the league.
2. Ryan Tannehill had a tough day in the Week 13 meeting. Miami’s rookie quarterback finished 13-of-29 for 186 yards and no touchdowns. Tannehill was sacked three times, including twice by reserve lineman Trevor Scott. Since Week 13, Tannehill hasn’t been particularly efficient but has avoided turnovers, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 500 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against the 49ers, Jaguars and Bills. Statistically, the book has not changed on how to beat Tannehill. His 51.4 Total QBR against four or fewer pass rushers is 27th in the league, and his 57.9 completion percentage against standard pressure ranks 32nd among 38 qualified quarterbacks (one spot above Mark Sanchez).
3. Miami’s pass defense has played well down the stretch. The Dolphins’ defense is one of two that has not allowed an opposing quarterback to throw for at least 250 yards in the last seven games (the Bills are the other). Miami has been aggressive this season, but only sent added pressure in Week 13 on 27.9 percent of dropbacks, the Dolphins’ second-lowest rate this season. The Dolphins’ hesitancy to blitz Tom Brady made sense -- Brady’s 20 touchdown passes against five or more rushers this season are the most by a quarterback against added pressure in the last five seasons, and Brady hasn’t thrown an interception against five or more rushers in more than a year (Week 14 vs. Washington, 2011). The Dolphins slowed Brady (24-of-40, 238 yards, TD, Int) and may employ a similar strategy Sunday.