The Patriots can clinch the AFC East today. Here are the keys to victory over the Dolphins
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV, radio: CBS, WBZ-FM 98.5
When the Dolphins run
Frank Gore has been running longer than Forrest Gump. The bulldozer is still chugging along the way he did when he landed in San Francisco as a rookie in 2005. The 5-foot-9-inch, 212-pounder (he appears bigger) is the leader of a terrific tandem, and his 4.4 yards per carry is his best average since 2012. Gore is a compact runner with exceptional lower-body strength who will deflect direct hits. Arm tacklers need not apply. Gore has good vision and tremendous acceleration — he still has the ability to hit home runs. Kenyan Drake (6-1, 211) has nice lateral movement and sneaky speed. He has decent vision and will slip through creases and onto the second level quickly. Drake is shifty in the open field but is a bit of an upright runner and will absorb some crunching blows. Don’t sleep on former Patriot Brandon Bolden. He finally got a carry last week and it went for 10 yards. Miami has had trouble consistently unlocking paths in the interior, forcing the backs to bounce outside. Center Travis Swanson is smart and surly but lacks strength, comparatively speaking. He can get overwhelmed by stout tackles. Right guard Jesse Davis has excellent size and strength, but the converted tackle isn’t athletic and will get caught up in traffic. Left guard Ted Larsen is tough and physical and plays with excellent leverage. New England’s front seven is adept at quickly slipping blocks, and that likely will continue here.
Rushing yards per game
Miami offense: 102.7 (24th)
New England defense: 106.7 (13th)
When the Dolphins pass
Ryan Tannehill is a big quarterback with a big-time arm. The 6-4, 207-pounder can make every throw and can make them effortlessly. Tannehill has the velocity to fit balls into tight windows, and while that’s a great quality, he will go to the well too often and invariably throws some bad interceptions. He’s extraordinarily streaky. When Tannehill catches fire, he can carry his club. But when he flames out, it gets ugly. Tannehill has excellent athleticism and will extend plays and move the chains with his legs. He has lost some potent weapons to injury (Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant) but still has a solid corps of pass catchers. Danny Amendola (knee) figures to be back after a one-game hiatus. Amendola leads the Dolphins in catches (48) and yards (469). He’s smart, fast, and clutch. All things you likely already knew. Kenny Stills has blazing speed, excellent hands, and uncanny body control. He’ll make some jaw-droppers — but he’ll drop some head-scratchers, too. DeVante Parker (6-3, 209) has excellent size, speed, and athleticism. He can make game-changing plays but also goes AWOL far too often. Newcomer Brice Butler (6-3, 220) has outstanding size and runs good routes. He could be a factor in this one. Tight end Nick O’Leary is a rugged blocker with reliable hands but limited athleticism. Rookie Mike Gesicki (6-6, 247) is a good athlete but struggles with consistency and blocking. He’s going to be a good one.
Passing yards per game
Miami offense: 199.4 (28th)
New England defense: 254.8 (21st)
When the Patriots run
New England’s backfield has a healthy outlook as it charges into the final month. Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead are off the injury report, James White continues to dazzle as a dual threat, and James Develin is crashing into bodies and into the end zone. Michel has become a more patient runner. The rookie waits for his blocks to develop, and his burst through the openings is impressive. Michel runs with good pad level and possesses the leg strength to break tackles and carry an offense. He has the size (5-11, 215) and stamina to wear down a defense — but he won’t often be asked to. Burkhead is tough and quick. He has good vision and instincts and will jump-cut into holes and use his lateral movement to dart through defenses. White is tremendous in space and will surprise defenses with his shifty runs out of the shotgun and/or pony formations. There are no surprises with Develin. He’s full speed ahead. Kiko Alonso is Miami’s best run-stopper. An incredibly instinctive linebacker, he gets a good jump on most plays and has excelling closing burst, whether he’s bearing down on the ball (three interceptions) or exploding into the ball carrier (three forced fumbles). Fellow linebackers Raekwon McMillan (he’s a violent tackler) and Jerome Baker (he’s rangy) make this an above-average second level of defense. Miami is missing a beefy Ndamukong Suh-like stud on the interior to fill gaps and redirect runners.
Rushing yards per game
New England offense: 121.7 (11th)
Miami defense: 144.7 (30th)
When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was at his point guard best last week, distributing the ball like Tiny Archibald and getting all his weapons involved. Nine Patriots caught passes from Brady, who was spinning it free and easy and not forcing anything. If the first read was there, he hit it. If not, he popped it to a safety valve. A lot of credit goes to an offensive line that rarely let the Vikings get within sniffing distance. A duplicate effort will be needed because the Dolphins have edge guys in Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn who, according to Bill Belichick, are adept at “turning speed into power.’’ Wake (6-3, 263) can beat offensive tackles with a nice combination of explosiveness and strength. At 36, Wake may have lost a half-step, but his myriad moves and strong hands more than make up for it. Quinn (6-4, 257) can catch blockers flat-footed with his burst and power. Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, and James Develin will literally chip in to help the edge blockers. Getting the ball out quickly to James White and Julian Edelman could loosen things up for all the other options, and this could be a big Gronkowski day. Asking strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (6-1, 202) to drape the big tight end might be a bit much for a rookie. With top corner Xavien Howard sidelined, Josh Gordon also could have a field day. Neither Bobby McCain nor Torry McTyer has the size or strength to handle the 6-3, 225-pound Gordon without some help over the top.
Passing yards per game
New England offense: 273.4 (ninth)
Miami defense: 254.8 (21st)
Dolphins’ key player: QB Ryan Tannehill
The seventh-year veteran is a two-face. There are times when Tannehill’s play can look downright ugly. Then the porch light comes on and he’ll deliver some beautiful passes. He has looked good (5 TDs, 1 INT) in the two games since missing five with a shoulder injury.
How he beats you: With a strong arm and athleticism. When he gets rolling — and has a clean pocket — Tannehill facilitates well and gets all his guys the ball. He has the ability to turn broken plays into chunk plays.
How to shut him down: With consistent pressure. Tannehill’s internal pocket clock malfunctions frequently, and he doesn’t always feel the heat and will hold the ball too long. He has taken a beating (228 sacks) in his career.
Dolphins’ keys to victory
1. Miami heat: Defensive ends Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn have to make Tom Brady sweat a little in the Sunshine State. If not, he’s going to burn you time and again.
2. Miami vise: Kiko Alonso & Co. have to put the squeeze on the running backs and prevent the Patriots from achieving the balance that has made them so dangerous the last few weeks.
3. Miami turnover chain: The Dolphins are good at taking away the ball (plus-8), and a couple or three would be huge for a team that is missing some of its top defensive players.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1. Heat lightning: Josh Gordon said he’s “as good as I’ve ever been” healthwise. It’s time to test a tattered secondary and see if he and Tom Brady can connect on some deep shots.
2. Heat index: The Patriots backs had a combined 45 touches in the win over the Vikings. Hitting those numbers again would help keep everyone fresh for four quarters.
3. Heat wave: Miami’s offensive line has struggled in pass protection. So, keep coming after Ryan Tannehill from every direction and hit him until he loses his will.
PREDICTION: Patriots 24, Dolphins 19