« Koa Misi, Jelani Jenkins doubtful for Patriots | Main | Answering the Jim Harbaugh questions with Miami Dolphins »

Keys to the game: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots

The Dolphins placed defensive lineman Anthony Johnson on injured reserve Friday evening.

While that will not necessarily hurt Miami's chances to win, it obviously will affect Miami's defensive line rotation. Earl Mitchell, Jared Odrick and Randy Starks will have to play longer. That may be better for Miami.

If you are frequent reader of this weekly Saturday feature, you know that although I've stopped picking the game, my thinking is obvious in how much of the advantages I give one team or the other.

Last week, you may recall, I don't thinkI gave the Dolphins the advantage in any major category. Tha'ts because I didn't believe the Dolphins matched up well against the Baltimore Ravens.

I believe the Dolphins actually match up better against the New England Patriots on Sunday. I'm wouldn't pick the Dolphins to win the game. But, in my mind, they have a better chance to win this game, than they did prior to last week's game versus Baltimore.

The keys to the game: 

When the Patriots pass the football: Things have changed in New England since the season-opener, and obviously for the better. The two guards and center who started the opener are different -- and better. Rob Gronkowski, working himself back from knee surgery and limited in his snap count in the opener, is now starting at tight end. Tim Wright, a tight end acquired from Tampa Bay near the end of the preseason, actually knows the offense now. And receiver Brandon LaFell, acquired in the offseason and coming off the bench in the opener, has found his niche and is starting. In other words the entire offense outside of quarterback Tom Brady and the two offensive tackles have different roles than they did in the opener. The Dolphins have apparently weathered the lack of quality cornerback issues they suffered when Cortland Finnegan missed four games. He will play. They do have to re-acclimate Jimmy Wilson to the safety spot to take over for the loss of Louis Delmas to a season-ending knee injury. The key to this game for Miami is somehow getting pressure on Brady. If they cannot do that, they cannot win. ADVANTAGE: New England.

When the Patriots run the football: New England made LaGarrette Blount the centerpiece of their running game last season as the playoffs got closer and it seems they’re trying to do the same now. Although Blount left in free agency, he was cut by Pittsburgh a month ago and signed as a free agent. In three games, Blount has rushed for 202 yards on 47 carries (4.8 average) and added toughness to the team’s inside running game. The Patriots also can use former Dolphin Jonas Gray, who had one excellent game and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, as an inside runner. ShaneVereen is more an outside threat and a fine pass-catcher out of the backfield. The Dolphins have allowed 201, 277 and 183 rushing yards respectively the past three games but view the work against Baltimore as only half bad because many of those yards came in breakout fashion in the fourth quarter once the game was already basically lost. (Strange). The team’s players remain confident they can regain the form that had them among the league leaders against the run earlier this season. Linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins are doubtful for the game so that cannot help a defense that’s currently No. 22 against the run. ADVANTAGE: New England.

When the Dolphins pass the football: It will be interesting to watch Jarvis Landry, now Miami’s leading receiver, match up against New England’s Brandon Browner, a 6-4 player who is one of the NFL’s more accomplished slot cornerbacks. Landry is in many respects the tone-setter for the Miami offense because he is physical as well as crafty. Browner is equally physical. The success of the Dolphins’ intermediate and deep passing game (what there is of that) will continue to depend on how much time the offensive line allows quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Unlike the past few weeks when Miami has faced elite pass-rushers, the Patriots don’t have one star rusher. They rely on a team concept to get to the quarterback and that may bode well for the Dolphins. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

When the Dolphins run the football: The Dolphins have been hearing complaints that Lamar Miller doesn’t get enough carries and it is not known if they’ve gotten the message but if they look at their season-opening victory over New England, they understand they ran a season-high 38 times for 191 yards. That is a formula for success against New England: Run it, tire New England’s finesse defense out, and keep Tom Brady off the field longer as a result. Of course, Knowshon Moreno did most of that damage in the opener and he’s been long done for the season, but Miller is itching for more work. The Patriots have vastly improved their run defense with the recent additions of Sealver Siliga (off IR) and Jonathan Casillas (in trade from Tampa Bay). Dont’a Hightower has stepped up his game, but there is no doubt this team still misses Jerod Mayo, who has effectively missed the past two seasons with knee injuries. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

Special teams: The Dolphins have been better this season returning kicks, the Patriots have been better returning punts. The Patriots have been better than the Dolphins at covering both kicks and punts. What does this all mean? Well, if the game comes down to a pressure kick, the Patriots are No. 6 in the NFL in field goal percentage. The Dolphins are No. 20. ADVANTAGE: New England.

Coaching: The Dolphins enjoyed an advantage over New England in the opener because new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor had not yet fully unveiled his scheme and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle brought a couple of wrinkles to the game. But the Dolphins are an open book now. And there is probably no better coach and staff at picking on the opponent’s weaknesses and trying to take away their strengths than Bill Belichick and his staff. Oh, by the way, Joe Philbin might be coaching for his job so give that due consideration. ADVANTAGE: New England.