It’s become nearly an annual tradition for the Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick: a “hats and t-shirts” game, and it has arrived in 2012.
The stakes will be obvious for the Patriots when they travel to take on division rival Miami this Sunday in Week 13: win, and earn yourself an AFC East crown and a corresponding hat and t-shirt to commemorate the accomplishment.
The fact that such an opportunity has arrived this early in the regular season speaks to both the sharp play of the Patriots in 2012, as well as the gap between the team and the rest of the division. Miami, Buffalo and New York are all under .500, and since the division was gridlocked after Week 6 with all four teams at 3-3, those three teams have won just four games combined (the Patriots have won five games in that stretch).
But it won’t be easy, as the Dolphins have normally played the Patriots tough, and the team is riding momentum from an impressive Week 12 win over the Seahawks, highlighted by the first fourth quarter comeback by rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill in his career.
Even with a win on Sunday, the Dolphins hopes for an AFC East division crown are slim, as they would need the Patriots to lose their remaining games and go undefeated themselves to capture it. That being said, the Dolphins are just a game out of the final wild card spot in the AFC, placing them much further ahead than many expected them to be in the first year of the Joe Philbin era.
A win also won’t come easy for the Patriots due to a number of injury issues the team is dealing with, as well as the recent suspension of defensive end Jermaine Cunningham that leaves the team thin on pass rushers.
When it comes to what we’ll be watching for on Sunday, injuries and suspensions play a factor in three major areas.
1. Who’s catching passes? The Patriots have just four wide receivers (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater) on their active roster, and all four have been limited this week in practice, with Edelman and Slater both recently suffering concussions. If any of those four are unable to play, the Patriots will be a man short of the conventional number of receivers to dress on game day, and will of course also be without tight end Rob Gronkowski again. We saw quarterback Tom Brady involve a number of targets last week in the first game the team has played without Gronk since he broke his forearm, and he may have to do the same this Sunday.
2. Who’s generating pressure? As mentioned already, Cunningham will be unavailable for four games due to a suspension. He had been promoted to a starting role in Week 12 with rookie Chandler Jones out due to an ankle injury, and Jones’ is out again this week. The team could opt for some more three-man defensive fronts, using a bigger grouping such as Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, with Rob Ninkovich remaining in an end-of-the-line role but playing from a two-point stance. Veteran Trevor Scott also looks to be in line for more duty this week, and rookies Justin Francis and Jake Bequette seem like candidates to dress in Week 13.
3. Who’s protecting Brady? To be fair, it really hasn’t mattered who has been in the starting lineup for the Patriots on the offensive line, as protection of Brady has been consistently excellent throughout the season. But the team would like to have its best five out there, and that would include left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who both missed the Thanksgiving night affair with the Jets. Vollmer has been limited in practice this week (he's questionable), while Mankins has already been declared out. Look for Donald Thomas to start in place of Mankins, and Marcus Cannon to fill the void at right tackle if Vollmer can't go.
4. Complementary effort. You could have singled out any of the three phases of the game in the Patriots’ triumph over the Jets last week as the key to victory, as the offense, defense and special teams units all chipped in during the rout. That’s the kind of effort the Patriots will look for on a consistent basis during the home stretch of the regular season. And while it’s not likely for this team -- or any, for that matter -- to score on defense and/or special teams every week, the Patriots need to piece together complimentary efforts every time they take the field. Belichick made no mystery about how he feels about the Dolphins in the kicking game, as it’s clear that will be an area of emphasis on Sunday. The Patriots need to meet the challenge in all three phases.
5. Shutting the door. Earlier this season the Patriots endured some struggles in finishing out games. They let leads slip away in the fourth quarter against both Baltimore and Seattle, unable to capitalize on the opportunity to win road games at difficult venues. The Patriots have the chance to finish off a different kind of test this weekend, as the aforementioned stakes of an AFC East title are on the line. The Patriots can send a strong message to the rest of the AFC and work to narrow the gap on the Texans and Ravens in the race for a first-round bye. Taking advantage of a chance to shut the door on the rest of the division would knock one goal off of the Patriots’ to-do list for 2012.