In a sort of déjà vu scenario, the New England Patriots will once again make a southern trek to Miami in December with the opportunity to clinch the AFC East with a win.
The trip in 2012 was a successful one, as the Patriots upended the Dolphins for their fourth straight AFC East division crown.
The Dolphins took aim this offseason to narrow the gap between the two teams, spending big in free agency and banking on the development of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Thirteen games into the second season under head coach Joe Philbin, the Dolphins appear to be the Patriots’ closest competition within the division, but it would take a streak for both teams in the season’s final three weeks for Miami to overtake the Patriots in the AFC East this season.
More specifically, the Patriots would need to lose their final three games and Miami would need to win their final three to claim the AFC East.
The Patriots have their eyes on not only another AFC East division title, but also the potential top seed in the AFC. They’re within closing distance of the Broncos (after their loss on Thursday night) but have the Bengals also breathing down their neck, so each game is of critical importance.
With the stakes high, here’s a look at what we’ll be watching for this Sunday in Miami.
1. Life without Gronk. It’s not new, per se, but it’s the start of a new stretch without tight end Rob Gronkowski, a driving force behind the Patriots’ recent offensive surge. The Patriots know they will be without the talented 24-year-old for the rest of the season, putting the onus on the collective offense to step up in his place. Will the Patriots stick with their offensive system or overhaul things to account for the big loss? Most likely, they’ll look very similar to what we’ve seen schematically, with replacements looking to fill in for Gronk. That means the trio of Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams, as well as the receivers and running backs. Fortunately for the Patriots, they have running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola healthy this time around, as both were injured for much of Gronk's six-game absence before.
2. Supplementary offensive parts. The Patriots' three top receiving options without Gronkowski are Julian Edelman, Vereen and Amendola. Beyond that, they’ll need a steady combination from some mix of their tight ends and the remaining four wide receivers (we’ll exclude special-teams ace Matthew Slater in this discussion): Austin Collie and rookies Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. Boyce is the lone healthy rookie, meaning the Patriots' top four could well be rounded out by Collie and Boyce again this Sunday. The development of a dependable fourth receiving option among the receivers and tight ends would go a long way in easing the loss of Gronk.
3. Starting fast. For three straight weeks the Patriots have had to overcome second-half deficits of double digits to gain a victory. They’ve been able to do so, but that’s not a pattern they want to continually test. On defense, that means slowing down a Dolphins running game that starts with Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, while also keeping Tannehill and his targets in check (an underrated name to watch: tight end Charles Clay). Offensively it means coming out with purpose and authority and not missing out on makeable plays. Tom Brady pointed to his first throw of the game in Week 14 as one he should’ve completed, and those are the errors they need to avoid again this week.
4. Heat streak? Temperatures have dipped into the teens throughout the week in New England, some 70 degrees colder than it’s expected to be in Miami this Sunday. It’s impossible to emulate such heat in Foxborough, but the Patriots have practiced indoors this week to at least crank up the temperatures a little bit to help the players adjust to the unique climate they’ll be playing in this Sunday. This could well be the warmest game day they’ll have all season.
5. Role of Ridley. This storyline has perhaps gone a little under-the-radar in wake of the Gronkowski news, but we’re still interested to see how running back Stevan Ridley is used going forward. He was tied for the team high in carries last Sunday with eight, but he didn’t play until the second quarter, with LeGarrette Blount opening the game. The Patriots are going to need their offense to be at its best without Gronkowski, and Ridley is a talented back who can change the flow for the Patriots when running well. The ball-security issues are not to be ignored, but he took a step forward in Week 14.