Guess the game plan: Patriots-Dolphins

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

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.

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.