In a typical year, the Patriots spend December locking up another AFC East title while the Miami Dolphins sputter to the finish line amid another fruitless season.
This year, though the teams haven’t done a complete 180, they certainly find themselves in different positions heading into Sunday’s 1 p.m. clash.
New England is 6-7 and needs to win out and get a heap of help to have a shot at the playoffs. Miami is 8-5 and can control its own destiny in the final three games.
Here’s what to know about the Dolphins, who feature a familiar head coach, an intriguing quarterback, and a ballhawk who’s quickly becoming a household name.
Brian Flores doesn’t believe the teams have ‘flipped roles’
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who played at Boston College and spent 15 seasons with the Patriots, is now in his second year with Miami.
He’s helped engineer a turnaround that has the Dolphins in contention for an AFC Wild Card spot.
Last year, Miami sputtered to a 5-11 record and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. The Dolphins have only made the postseason once (2016) since they won the AFC East in 2009, and ESPN’s NFL Playoff Predictor currently gives them a 30.2 percent chance to curb that trend.
“We’re in a position where we get to play some meaningful games and that’s good, but in order to take advantage of them, we can’t be thinking three, four, five weeks ahead,” Flores told reporters.
If the Dolphins beat the Patriots on Sunday and the Las Vegas Raiders next week, they have a 75.9 percent chance to get in – even if they lose to the Buffalo Bills to end the season.
They’re 3.5-point home favorites for this game, but Flores knows he’ll be in for a challenge against the Patriots, who beat Miami, 21-11, back in Week 1. Though the Patriots have a 2 percent chance to make the playoffs, Flores knows that number won’t affect the way Bill Belichick and Co. prepare.
When asked if Flores finds it odd that the Patriots and Dolphins have “flipped roles,” Flores quickly dismissed that notion.
“I don’t think we’ve really flipped roles,” he said. “I think they’re trying to win one game and we’re trying to win one game. That’s where we’re at and that’s kind of our thought process, and I’m sure – actually, I know – that that’s what they’re saying in their building. I could see how people could think that it’s flipped, but for us, it’s a one-game season. It’s the same for them.”
Tua Tagovailoa has provided a lift
After starting the season 1-3, the Dolphins ripped off five straight wins to move to 6-3.
They earned statement victories over three strong NFC West teams in the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, and Arizona Cardinals in that span, then they beat the New York Jets and Cincinnati Bengals, and lost to the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs to move to 8-5.
Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who took over for Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 8 against the Rams, has been a catalyst along the way. The No. 5 pick in the draft has thrown nine touchdown passes compared to just one interception and has posted a 4-2 record as a starter.
“When you’re genuinely and authentically and sincerely trying to do what’s best for the team, as a leader you have peace making the decisions you make, and that was the case going with Tua,” Flores said.
It hasn’t all been rosy, though, as backup Fitzpatrick replaced him late in the Broncos game and nearly orchestrated a comeback. The Dolphins went back to Tagovailoa the next game, and he threw for nearly 300 yards in a win over the Bengals.
An explosive dual-threat quarterback from the University of Alabama, Tagovailoa is trying to become the first rookie QB to beat the Patriots since 2013. He said he grew up watching the Patriots play in Super Bowls and has seen Belichick a lot over the years at Alabama because of Belichick’s friendship with coach Nick Saban.
“I know that there’s going to be a lot of challenges that his defense has to offer our offense and we just have to be prepared this week for those,” Tagovailoa told reporters.
They’re limited offensively at the moment
Outside of Tagovailoa, the Dolphins offense relies on wide receiver DeVante Parker, tight end Mike Gesicki, and running back Myles Gaskin.
But that won’t happen this week.
Parker is questionable due to a hamstring injury, Gesicki is questionable with a shoulder injury, and Gaskin is on the reserve/COVID-19 list and will miss the game.
A steady, dependable player, Parker leads the team with 56 receptions and 677 yards and has four touchdowns.
Gesicki, who didn’t participate in practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday, has four touchdown grabs in Miami’s last three games – including two against the Chiefs a week ago before he left with a shoulder injury. On the season, he has 44 catches for 602 yards and a team-high six TDs.
Belichick praised Gesicki for his receiving skills, noting that he’s really more of a big receiver than a true tight end.
“He’s got good quickness, obviously good length, good hands, an instinctive receiver that knows how to get open and can make good catches in tight coverage with his length and his hands,” Belichick said.
In Gaskin’s absence, and with backup Salvon Ahmed limited, running backs DeAndre Washington and Matt Breida and pass-catchers Lynn Bowden Jr. and Malcolm Perry could see an increased role.
The Dolphins are averaging an NFL-worst 3.6 yards per rush as a team and are 27th overall in yards per game (323.4).
Xavien Howard is flying under the radar
Defensively, there are some familiar faces in leadership roles for the Dolphins.
Linebackers Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy and strong safety Eric Rowe, all former Patriots, are in the top six in tackles on the Dolphins. Roberts (chest) and Van Noy (hip) are both questionable for this game.
Xavien Howard, the high-flying cornerback, is someone to keep an eye on Sunday. He’s recorded an interception in each of the Dolphins’ last five games, including a ridiculous one-handed grab against the Chiefs, and he currently leads the NFL with nine picks on the year.
If he gets at least one more in three games, he’ll become the first player in 13 years to reach double digits. Howard, a fifth-year pro from Baylor University, has established himself as one of the best playmakers in the NFL.
“I fly under the radar,” Howard told reporters. “For sure.”
Linebacker Jerome Baker (team-high 90 tackles) and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (team-high eight sacks) are two other contributors.
The Patriots, who are fifth in the NFL with 147.5 rushing yards per game, are 53-3 since 2000 when a player rushes for 100-plus yards. Miami is 22nd in the NFL with 120.2 rushing yards allowed per game.