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Thursday, December 27, 2012
How should Pats approach Dolphins?

By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week we're switching things up a bit. Mike and Tedy answer your questions on five topics as they relate to Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins (4:25 p.m., CBS) and beyond:

1. Approach to Dolphins game and establishing consistency

Q. Do you think Bill Belichick will handle his roster differently Sunday afternoon (4:25 kickoff) based on the outcome of the Houston/Indy game, which kicks off at 1 p.m.? -- Nick (Montreal)

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What's more important for the Patriots?

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,984)

Mike: Yes, Nick, I do. This highlights some of the "playoff interests" Belichick must protect. Managing the roster is very important so the team is at its best when it counts.

I like the Colts, playing with emotion at home, to beat the Texans. Then I envision Belichick playing most of his regulars (not forcing the issue with some banged-up players) with the idea of getting off a fast start against the Dolphins. The slow starts the past two weeks are concerning to Belichick.

If the first-round bye is in play, and Belichick will know based on the result of the 1 p.m. Colts-Texans game, I think he sticks with the regulars as long as needed, possibly the whole game. That seems fairly straightforward from this perspective. The fact that the Patriots-Dolphins game was moved to 4:25 p.m. was a nice break for the team.

The team needs to put together a stretch of good football here, whether it's a few series with the regulars or the whole game. If the Texans win, I envision Belichick managing the game a bit differently with the idea that the Chiefs won't beat the Broncos. I think he begins the game with the regulars, focusing on the fast start, and then manages personnel a bit more liberally.

Q. There seems to be a trend sneaking back in where the Patriots have become their own worst enemy -- slow starts and not playing a full four quarters. I'd like to chalk up last week's performance against the Jags as an emotional letdown. How do Bill and staff get everybody to refocus but also help prevent injuries? Generally, now is the time to start getting hot. -- Ash (Toronto)

Tedy: There is one aspect of your question that worries me. When you say "emotional letdown," I was also curious why they weren't able to put away the Jaguars last week. I think it makes this game against the Dolphins a little more urgent, to go out there and play good football going into the playoffs is what all teams in the NFL want to do, especially if you're playing the very next weekend.

Q. In my opinion, this Patriots team has been very inconsistent. The game against the Niners is a prime example. They played absolutely dreadfully in the first half, but were a completely different team in the second. The games against the Jets are also a good example, the first being extremely uneven, the second being a complete domination. Do you think this team can put in enough consistent effort to get far in the playoffs, or does this seem like a team that will win a playoff game and then flame out? -- Tim (Newport, R.I.)

Mike: Tim, I think the Patriots have it in them. If I saw other teams doing that consistently, I might be less optimistic, but how do we explain the 49ers (at Patriots -- impressive; at Seahawks -- not so impressive)? No team is rolling week after week against top competition. I think they'll be ready for when it counts.

Q. Mike, I'm very concerned about the offensive line getting taken to school by an average Jaguars defensive line. Logan Mankins and Nate Solder seem beat up and that won't change until next season. -- Michael (New York City)

Mike: Fair concern, Michael. That's a Jaguars defense that wasn't known for rushing the passer, and they hit Tom Brady nine times. In comes Cameron Wake. Let's see if they can rebound.

2. What makes the Dolphins dangerous

Q. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill = the real deal? -- Ben (Miami)

Tedy: Ben, Tannehill hasn't made the splash that other rookie quarterbacks have (Andrew Luck, Roberth Griffin III, Russell Wilson) but in any other "normal" year for rookie quarterbacks, the attention on Tannehill would be high. I do feel like Tannehill has had signature moments this year already. What he did late in the first quarter in the Seahawks game to get that victory has to get everyone excited in South Beach.

I really respect Mike Tomlin as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and one of the things he says before a game is, "Let's put an exclamation point on our work." Tannehill has an opportunity to put an "exclamation point" on his rookie season. If he can come into New England and get a victory and lead the Dolphins to an 8-8 record, that's almost as impressive as the other rookie quarterbacks going to the playoffs.

3. Secondary concerns

Q. Do you think Sunday's lackluster performance was mostly due to missing Brandon Spikes, Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib, or are we still just not that good? Also, why Kyle Arrington, why not Marquis Cole outside Arrington on the slot? -- TJ (Melbourne, Fla.)

Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib's health for the playoffs is of the utmost importance for the Patriots.

Tedy: Moving McCourty back to corner puts that entire secondary in a shuffle. I feel like McCourty is best for this team at free safety. It's very hard to go from free safety to cornerback within the course of a week. It's like going from inside linebacker to outside linebacker. There is a whole different set of responsibilities and athletic challenges. I know McCourty is a great athlete and he's shown he can do it. But for the Patriots to be at their best, at this point in time, I like him at safety. Guys need to get healthy.

Q. In the event that we are without one of our starting cornerbacks for any stretch of the playoffs, do you think that we see Arrington move up the cornerback depth chart, or do we pull McCourty over from safety to fill the hole? -- Nick (Columbia, Mo.)

Mike: Nick, I think this week we could see McCourty back at cornerback, with the Steve Gregory/Patrick Chung pairing at safety. Seeing Talib run in his eight snaps played against the Jaguars, it didn't look good.

Q. Given Talib's importance to the Pats' playoff chances, and given that he was literally holding his hip during plays last Sunday, and given that he went on injured reserve last tear because of his hip, do you sit him this Sunday, even if Houston loses to Indy? (Belmont, Mass.)

Tedy: Whatever the Patriots have to do for Talib to be healthy, I'd do it. If it meant resting him a week, then that's what you have to do. When these kinds of trades happen, it makes you think that the original organization knew something. Did they potentially see the hip being a problem? If Talib can't go, and McCourty has to be put at corner, you're looking at potential problems.

Q. It's become apparent that the addition of Talib has made a huge difference in the secondary. Yet his contract is up at the end of the year. While he could possibly get a multiyear contract with decent money, I would think it would be beneficial for him to sign up for another year at fair value with the Pats, not only to gain a full year with an elite team, but to prove to the league that his past issues are behind him. That would potentially lead to a bigger contract in 2014, although there is always the risk of injury that could thwart such a scenario. What do you think will happen with Talib next year?  RSL (Exeter, N.H.)

Mike: I know I've said this before, but this situation reminds me exactly of Randy Moss in 2008. Moss had come here on a one-year deal and was a model citizen while he worked to restore his name etc. From a team standpoint, the issue then becomes "Do you think he'll act the same way when he has a little more security?" That's a tough call and that's why the club was content to keep the deal short (three years, $27 million) and almost lost him to the Eagles. I think they'll take a similar approach with Talib, and thus the market will ultimately dictate his return. They want him, but how far would they really be willing to extend?

4. Looking to potential playoff foes

Q. Who is a more dangerous wild-card foe for the Patriots if that's the way it turns out -- the Colts or Bengals? -- WC (Seattle)

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If the Patriots end up playing on wild card weekend, which opponent do you think would give them the most trouble?

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Tedy: Watching Cincinnati last week, they looked to me like a team that took another step in their development. It was the first victory for Andy Dalton over the Steelers, and it was like they were sending a message to the entire league that times are changing in the AFC North. I think Cincinnati could be a tough out for the Patriots in the playoffs, not only because of the maturity of Dalton, but also the Bengals' pass rush. They are second in the NFL with 47 sacks.

Mike: I think Indy is the better matchup for the Patriots. If it's the Bengals, from a media perspective, will be fun to see BenJarvus Green-Ellis return to town as a Bengal in a playoff atmosphere.

Q. If the Patriots end up having to play the Broncos on the road in the AFC Championship Game, what is the best way for the Patriots' offense to approach this game? Should they go up-tempo to keep the pass-rushers on their heels or ball-control style to keep Peyton Manning off the field? -- Daniel (South Carolina)

Mike: In a game like that, Daniel, it's probably going to be a limited possession type of situation. We've seen that before with Brady/Manning. One play makes the difference. It's a razor-thin margin for error. I think the Patriots surprised the Broncos Oct. 7 with the up-tempo offense, almost similar to how the Dolphins surprised them in 2008 with the Wildcat. They might use it, but the element of surprise is gone.

5. The Gronk question

Q. How important do you think it is for Rob Gronkowski to get some reps in the regular season, or would it be fine to have his first action be in the playoffs? -- Rob (Walpole)

Tedy: Rob, it depends on the injury. If it's healed and he can participate, I'd play him. I don't like a player having a month with no action and then jumping into it in the playoffs. It would take a player like that, even if it is Gronkowski, to get used to the tempo. Why waste a series or two in the playoffs getting used to the tempo if you can do that this week?

Mike: There is no substitute for playing in a game and getting used to game tempo. I agree with Tedy here. If you can knock off that rust in the regular season, why wait?

I believe Belichick when he says it's up to the doctors. If the doctors clear him, I think you play him to get him up to speed. If the doctors don't clear him, the decision is out of Belcihick's hands.