Commentary

Pats have been here before

Hat and T-shirt game against a division foe presents familiar challenges

Updated: December 13, 2013, 4:30 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss

Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium in Miami (CBS 1 p.m. ET):

Mike: This is a déjà vu type situation, Tedy. Last year the Patriots traveled to South Florida with a chance to clinch the AFC East championship and they did it. Same thing this year.

Tedy: This would be the 11th time in Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach that the Patriots capture the division title. We've talked about this several times in recent years -- this is a "hat and T-shirt game" and those hats and T-shirts mean something. It means you've accomplished something. It's right there on the hat and T-shirt -- "Division Champs." It didn't matter the year, when I got to put one of those on, it always felt good. You want the set of three -- division, conference, Super Bowl -- and it starts with this one.

Mike: This is also a big game for the Dolphins, who at 7-6 still have playoff hopes. Their final two games are at Buffalo and home against the Jets, so if they can get this one, it would greatly increase their chances.

[+] EnlargeOlivier Vernon
Jim Mahoney/AP PhotoDefensive end Olivier Vernon, who has 11.5 sacks this season, leads an underrated Dolphins defensive line.

Tedy: When we put together this breakdown prior to the Patriots-Dolphins game on Oct. 27 (a 27-17 Patriots win), this was a Miami team that seemed to be at a crossroads. They had the early-season momentum after opening the year with three straight wins, but then came four straight losses, the final one coming against New England. Soon after, they had the whole Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin situation. But now they're on the upswing, with back-to-back road wins against the Jets and Steelers. For a team that has gone through so much adversity this year, every win says a lot about their mental toughness.

Mike: When Bill Belichick went through the Dolphins at the start of his Wednesday news conference, he started with the defense. So let's do the same, as it's mostly the same unit we saw Oct. 27.

Tedy: Just as we talked about in October, this is a solid defensive line. It doesn't necessarily get the recognition, and it's a player who isn't often discussed, Olivier Vernon, who leads the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks. Cameron Wake, who you'd normally think is the sack leader, is still productive with 7.5. But in addition to that, you have a combination of players on the interior who are tough -- Jared Odrick, Paul Soliai and Randy Starks. They do a good job in terms of getting their hands on offensive linemen and driving them back, and also are tough to move in the running game. You see them doing a lot of different things.

Mike: I remember you also mentioning their double-A gap package and how that puts stress on an offensive line.

Tedy: Yes, one of the reasons they do that is to affect the protection calls of the offensive line. They bring the linebackers into those gaps and a few different things can happen -- both can rush, one can rush, or both can drop out. So that's a little bit of a game within the game to watch for. Overall, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle shows a lot of different looks, and he'll bring players from all over with the blitz -- linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties.

Mike: Really the only change on defense for the Dolphins since the Oct. 27 game against the Patriots is at cornerback, where starter Dimitri Patterson is now on injured reserve and Will Davis is in. When you compare the Patriots and Dolphins on defense, your "index" has the Patriots tied for 19th in the NFL while the Dolphins are 11th.

Tedy: The Dolphins rank ninth in defensive points allowed and are 10th in the red zone. The numbers dip slightly on third down (13th) and turnovers created (tied-13th). Overall, this is a strong defense. For a Patriots offense adjusting to the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski, it's going to be a challenge, especially playing in South Florida.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Danny Amendola
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesAs the Patriots' offense tries to adjust without tight end Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady will be relying on Danny Amendola and others to step up.

Mike: Another part of this matchup that is a little different is that the teams saw each other seven weeks ago. Obviously some things have changed, but there are a lot of common threads. The only real changes on the Dolphins' offense are along the offensive line (Nate Garner in for Richie Incognito) and Bryant McKinnie settling in at left tackle with Tyson Clabo at right tackle.

Tedy: This is similar to when the Patriots played the Jets on Oct. 20 after seeing them in Week 2 of the season (Sept. 12), or even last year when they played the Texans late in the regular season and then in the playoffs. You remember the tape, the players and the matchups you had because they are so recent. There should be familiarity with the opponent and game plan. It's not as much learning about schemes and players. It's about executing on Sunday. That makes it different from what the Patriots went through last week when they were playing a Browns team they weren't as familiar with. Sure, there will be some slight wrinkles from the past meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins, but this is more about execution.

Mike: Speaking of which, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill is executing pretty well. He seems to be taking care of the ball, even if the pass protection has struggled at times. One of the things that has helped is getting running backs Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller going. The Dolphins probably like that matchup against the Patriots' 31st-ranked run defense.

Tedy: I'd repeat what I said back in October -- these are two solid running backs. This is a team that runs inside with the two-back set, but can also get it outside with elements of the read-option. Tannehill is somewhat of a threat running the ball, especially in the red area. At the same time, we've seen Thomas struggle in pass protection and that's something to watch. Simply put, this offense has to test the run defense of the Patriots.

Mike: We still see the Patriots experimenting with some things on defense, such as Sealver Siliga starting at nose tackle last week. That tells us that they are still looking for the right combinations, even at this late time of the season. Specific to the Dolphins, one thing that stood out from Patriots coaches and players this week was their respect for tight end Charles Clay. A 2011 sixth-round draft choice out of Tulsa, Clay seems to really be coming on.

Tedy: Charles Clay is a very solid player. He can do many things, and is just the type of player who can give the Patriots problems. Look for him to work the middle of the field against the Patriots' linebackers, especially off of play-action.

Mike: Bill Belichick has also stressed the importance of punt protection this week, calling the Dolphins one of the better punt-pressure units. Overall, special teams have been a positive for the Patriots, with kicker Stephen Gostkowski, in particular, coming up big.

Tedy: This could be a game where Gostkowski is called upon to win it in the end. He has been one of the Patriots' most potent and consistent weapons this year -- an all-around complete kicker. He makes clutch kicks, has the distance to hit from 50-plus yards, and his kickoffs are outstanding.

Mike: I think the Patriots find success with the up-tempo offensive approach. The receivers will need to come up big, the protection must hold up, and the defense needs to create turnovers. Patriots 23, Dolphins 20.

Tedy: This offense will go up-tempo. We might even see the up-tempo run game. Shane Vereen will have a big game and the Patriots will get those hats and T-shirts. Patriots 28, Dolphins 27.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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