Getting to know the Dolphins, again

For the second time in as many seasons, the New England Patriots are heading south in December for a game against the Miami Dolphins with the opportunity to clinch the AFC East title.

A year ago, they were able to do the job in Miami, sealing their fourth straight division crown.

Entering this season, many predicted the Dolphins would prove to be the Patriots' stiffest competition in the AFC East after a heavy spending offseason and the continued development of young quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

The Dolphins have their eyes on the playoffs, and they find themselves in the hunt, as they're among four teams vying for one of the final wild card spots. The Chiefs hold a three-game edge for what would be the AFC's fifth seed.

We previously introduced the Dolphins prior to the teams' first matchup, won by the Patriots 27-17 at Gillette Stadium, but below is a primer of more names and faces of note in Miami.

Record: 7-6 (2nd in AFC East)

Head coach: Joe Philbin (second season)

Offensive coordinator: Mike Sherman

Defensive coordinator: Kevin Coyle


1. Running back Daniel Thomas. Thomas was uncertain to play entering Miami's Week 14 game in Pittsburgh, then went out to rush for the most yards he's had in a game since his very first NFL contest. More of a power, north-south runner than a laterally-elusive back, Thomas is part of a one-two attack that includes the speedy Lamar Miller, though Miller left Sunday's game with a concussion. The Dolphins have struggled running the ball this year, but Thomas gives them some thump in the backfield.

2. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Acquired in a trade prior to the first game between the teams, McKinnie is a towering tackle that has been productive in the league for a long time. His matchup with Chandler Jones will be one worth watching, as pass protection woes have been a team problem for Miami, which has surrendered 48 sacks this season, most in the NFL.

3. Tight end Charles Clay. There's not a ton of flash to Clay's game, but he is reliable and versatile. He'll be used all over the formation -- he's carried the ball six times this season to go along with his 60 catches -- and he's one of Tannehill's trusted targets. Clay led the Dolphins with five catches during the first meeting with the Patriots and is an unheralded target that the Patriots must account for.


1. Defensive end/outside linebacker Olivier Vernon. While Cameron Wake is an established pass rushing force, the Dolphins entered 2013 hoping that rookie Dion Jordan -- a player they traded up in the draft to select -- would become that bookend rusher to morph their pressure into one of the game's best. As it turns out, Vernon, the team's third-round pick in 2012, has become the complementary piece opposite of Wake, as he's exploded for 11.5 sacks through just 13 games. His three-sack, 10-tackle outing against the Jets in Week 13 earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

2. Linebacker Philip Wheeler. Wheeler's breakout 2012 season with the Raiders made him an attractive free agent commodity this past offseason, luring Miami to pounce on him and insert him alongside Dannell Ellerbe and others. Wheeler has performed well, leading the team in tackles with 92. The 28-year-old has been a steady pro since being taken 93rd overall by the Colts in 2008 out of Georgia Tech.

3. Safety Reshad Jones. While the Dolphins were busy spending in free agency this offseason, they also made sure to lock up one of their own, as they extended the contract of Jones, a former fifth-round pick who has become a cornerstone of their secondary. A presence in the running game, Jones has 78 tackles to go along with 1.5 sacks, one interception and four pass breakups. In his past six games against the Patriots, Jones has tallied 48 tackles.

OTHER NOTES: The Dolphins have allowed just four touchdown passes to wide receivers this season (including one to Aaron Dobson), though they've been more generous to tight ends, surrendering 12 touchdown passes. ... Punter Brandon Fields is having a strong season with a net average of 42.1 yards per punt and 25 punts downed inside the 20. ... The Dolphins spent big this offseason to land speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace in free agency, but it is Brian Hartline who leads them with 855 yards receiving. ... Tannehill has excellent mobility as a former college wide receiver, and he set a career-high with 56 rushing yards in Week 14 against Pittsburgh.