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Keys to the game: Dolphins vs. Patriots

I picked the Dolphins to beat the Patriots in Sunday's Miami Herald.

Simply, I think the loss of Rob Gronkowski is huge. I think Ryan Tannehill is playing well, as I predicted he would, in December. And I'm not sold on the New England run defense.


When the Dolphins pass the football: In three career games against the Patriots, Ryan Tannehill has not been very good. He’s completed only 51.8 percent of his passes, has thrown three interceptions, fumbled twice and thrown two touchdowns. He’s also been sacked 16 times which, obviously, is only not solely his fault. The point is if the Dolphins are going to overcome the Beast in the AFC East, Tannehill has to step up his game. The Dolphins expect the Patriots to match Aqib Talib against Brian Hartline and then double and roll coverages with Alfonzo Dennard (if available) and others to Mike Wallace. The problem for New England, the NFL’s No. 16 team against the pass, is that tight end Charles Clay has come into his own and is now a primary weapon in the passing game. Clay had two TD catches last week against Pittsburgh. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins run the football: The Dolphins plowed both the Jets and Steelers running the ball the last two weeks and they are much better against the run than the Patriots. Truth is, practically everyone is better against the run than the Patriots because they lost run-stuff Vince Wilfork, who is out for the year, and they are also ranked 31st in the category among all NFL teams. The question for the Dolphins is not whether they’ll be able to run the football but rather do they have the patience and will to stick with the running game. The answer to that question this year has been sometimes yes, sometimes no, so there’s no telling which version of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman will show up to Sun Life on Sunday. ADVANTAGE: Dolphins.

When the Patriots run the football: If Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniel are smart, and they are, they will try to resolve their team’s 2013 penchant for sleepwalking through the first half of games by playing smash-mouth football against Miami. The Patriots are a good running team – a fact that gets lost in the giant shadow cast by quarterback Tom Brady. The offensive line is good and well coached. The stable of running backs is deep, assuming a couple don’t fumble and get benched for the whole game. And that is why the Pats are No. 13 in the NFL running the ball. The Dolphins are, shall we say, challenged in their run-stopping consistency. Teams have been able to find a soft middle often times this season. This despite the fact Randy Starks, Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick are all having solid seasons. ADVANTAGE: New England.

When the Patriots pass the football: The truth of the matter is the Patriots are lessened by the loss of Rob Gronkowski. Without Gronkowski in the lineup they score fewer points, throw for fewer yards, have less success on third down and in the red zone. And Gronk isn’t getting back in uniform anytime soon after blowing out a knee last week. Aaron Dobson also isn’t going to factor this game so Tom Brady will have to make due with mighty mites Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Kenbrell Thompkins, a South Floridian, is coming home but because he’s a rookie he does rookie things – which means he’s inconsistent. This group is not to be confused with the 2007 Patriots pass offense. The Dolphins are coming off a game where Ben Roethlisberger carved them up 328 passing yards and three touchdowns. But Brady doesn’t have the Steelers WR corps. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams: Rookie kicker Caleb Sturgis has missed a field goal in six of the Dolphins last eight games. The Dolphins are a better kickoff return team, the Patriots are a better punt return team. Brandon Fields has the advantage at punter but the Patriots do a better job on kickoffs and punt coverage. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Coaching: Joe Philbin has yet to beat Bill Belichick so that is a problem at the moment for the Dolphins. Interestingly, both men handle the press more or less in the same manner, which is to say, they hate them. But that’s where the comparisons kind of end. Belichick has a lot more experience, regular-season success and championships. ADVANTAGE: New England.