The Patriots don’t have to worry about fighting for their playoff lives on the road against Miami in Week 18 after clinching a playoff spot last week. The Dolphins, on the other hand, will be watching the playoffs from their couches.
But Miami can still play spoiler in a way on Sunday if the Patriots allow them to. A road loss for New England, which currently owns the AFC’s first wild card spot, could make their playoff outlook bleak.
A win, though, could make life a little easier and perhaps give people more confidence in rookie Mac Jones as he makes his playoff debut.
Here’s what fans should know about this week’s game.
The Patriots have a lot to play for — and to lose
New England has to be kicking itself over giving away control of the AFC East and the conference’s top seed with losses to Indianapolis and Buffalo.
The dreams of achieving both aren’t dead yet, but they’re long shots.
A Patriots win coupled with a Bills loss to the Jets would clinch the AFC East for New England, guaranteeing it no worse than a top-four seed. Don’t hold your breath on that, though: the Bills trounced the Jets 45-17 earlier this season and get to play this game at home.
Still, if those scenarios come to pass, the Patriots can steal the AFC’s top seed if the Titans lose to the Texans and the Chiefs lose to the Broncos.
Again, good luck getting all that help.
Winning could be the difference between playing a team like the Bills, Colts, or Chargers versus facing off against the Chiefs on wild card weekend.
New England must stop Jaylen Waddle
The Patriots aren’t the only team with an outstanding rookie out of Alabama.
Waddle leads all first-year players with 99 catches in 2021, and his speed and shiftiness have converted those grabs into 988 yards. Even if his numbers end up inflated due to the extra game on the schedule, that’s a very productive first year.
Tua Tagovailoa’s lack of arm strength has not allowed Waddle to use his insane speed as a weapon down the field. Somehow, the mega-explosive receiver averages a measly 7.1 yards of depth on each target. If anything, that speaks to how monstrous a threat he is. Waddle has racked up 437 yards after the catch, which is good for 11th in the league.
The Patriots need to shore up the issues they had against Miami in the season-opening loss — they allowed far too many catches and yards on slants and bubble screens. Waddle should be the first person they have an eye on, whether he’s out wide, in the slot, or in the backfield. They don’t want to see him hit the jets with grass in front of him.
Mac Jones might have to win the game
The Patriots rookie had a solid NFL debut (281 yards, one TD) and did enough to help the team win against the Dolphins in September. It’s not his fault Damien Harris fumbled when New England was about to take the lead.
But the offense’s inability to get those game-clinching points in Weeks 1 and 4 against Miami and Tampa Bay, respectively, has led to questions about Jones’s ability to “win” the game. (That Houston game-winning drive is rarely talked about.)
If Jones wants to play past wild-card weekend, he needs to work to reverse that narrative.
The Colts and Bills provided two sides of the same blueprint opponents will hope to use against Jones and the Patriots offense: stop the run and make the rookie throw to beat them (Colts) and force Jones to throw the ball down the field and outside the numbers (Bills).
The Dolphins did a decent job against the Patriots’ run game in Week 1 aside from two chunk plays from Harris, so expect them to force the action into Jones’s hand again this Sunday.
It’s time for the rookie to show teams they can’t do that without consequences.
The Patriots have bad luck to reverse in Miami
The Patriots have lost six of their last eight games in Miami.
The infamous 2018 “Miami Miracle” game, in which Kenyan Drake eluded a stumbling Rob Gronkowski to sneak into the end zone, stands out as a memorable example. The Patriots also lost in Miami last year with Cam Newton at the helm after beating the Dolphins in Week 1.
The Patriots might be the better team, but divisional contests don’t always work out the way we expect. Miami would gladly take a season sweep of New England now that the playoffs are out of reach.
But while the Dolphins are just playing for pride, the Patriots have a lot more at stake. Aside from that, limping into the playoffs isn’t a great feeling.