Mike: This is a "hat and T-shirt" game, which I believe is a phrase you coined back in your playing days. With a win, the Patriots will have hats and T-shirts waiting for them in the locker room because they will have clinched the AFC East championship. The Patriots have captured the AFC East nine of the past 11 seasons (2002, 2008 the exceptions), so it's understandable that much of the focus among the team's fans is on the AFC as a whole and not the division itself.
Tedy: Yes, I coined that phrase and there is nothing better than FREE hats and T-shirts that say the team you are on accomplished something. Hopefully, when it's all said and done you get three sets of hats and T-shirts -- one for the division, conference and Super Bowl. Things are starting to get well defined in the AFC playoff picture. The division leaders all have big leads, so it's more about the other teams jockeying for the wild-card spots. Still, this is an important time for the Patriots. You're rooting for those other top seeds to lose, because you want to position yourself for that first-round playoff bye, but you have to be careful of letting those thoughts creep into your head. The Patriots have two tough contests coming up after this game -- at home against the Texans and 49ers -- but they can't lose sight of getting this one victory.
Mike: From a news-making perspective, one of the more notable developments of the past week was the four-game suspension of Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. This is the second Patriots NFL suspension in a span of three weeks (rookie running back Brandon Bolden the other), which doesn't look good for the team. Since the league doesn't announce what the suspension is for, and the players have remained silent, it leaves a lot open to speculation.
Tedy: No one knows what it's for; it could be a number of things. In the end, you just have to make the right decisions as players. They provide you with the information. They provide you with the knowledge on how you will come into difficulties in terms of what you put into your body. How these guys don't know this, I just don't understand. They tell you, if there are any questions, bring it into the training staff and let them look at it and they'll help. It just shows a level of immaturity from players around the NFL, and how they aren't thinking long-term, with the ramifications of the decisions they're making. Now, sometimes it's a mistake. We've been told that if you take a certain Sudafed or something for a cold that you buy over the counter and think it's OK, you can still get suspended. I did hear Bill Belichick's comments the other day that "this didn't have to happen," but I put it on the players.
Mike: This year, there have been more than 20 players suspended by the NFL for violating the policy for performance-enhancing substances. In terms of what the Patriots lose with Cunningham, he was playing slightly more than 50 percent of the snaps, led the team with four drawn holding penalties and had 2.5 sacks. He's the top backup to right defensive end Chandler Jones, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury since the first quarter of the Nov. 18 win over the Colts, so the Patriots might be down to their third layer on the depth chart Sunday against the Dolphins.
Tedy: He was coming on, also used as a sub rusher and playing the "3 technique" over the offensive guard, which was creating problems for the opposition. When a guard sees that, with a quick, strong linebacker type, they can panic. There are "games" you can run from that as a defense, and the flexibility you have, now is lost. That could hurt the Patriots' pass rush.
Mike: As for a road game in South Florida, the Patriots have won convincingly the past two years. But overall, it's traditionally been a struggle for the team. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is 5-5 in his career against Miami on the road, and he touched earlier this week on why it's been a challenge at times. We remember the 2003 game, a 19-13 overtime win, when he connected with Troy Brown on the 82-yard pass in overtime and Bill Belichick threw his headset in the air in excitement, which was the type of reaction from Belichick we don't see often. But the next year, when the Patriots were 12-1, they lost 29-28 to a struggling Dolphins team and that sort of sums up the up-and-down nature of the team's trips to South Florida.
Tedy: When looking at some of the victories the Dolphins had over Brady and the Patriots, I think you start with the players -- Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, some of their defensive backs who played good man coverage. Those were some good Dolphins teams over those years that played better at home. Everyone knew it was a different story if you got them in Foxborough in December, because of the way they live down there in South Florida. But flip it around this year, and the climate is different for the Patriots. I know some of the players have played down there in college, but it's still something you have to deal with. I remember us trying to simulate the conditions by getting into the fieldhouse and turning up the heat, wearing extra sweatpants and sweatshirts. There were games that I was affected, where the thought was "maybe I need to take this long-sleeved shirt off under my jersey" because it was hot. So it's a combination of those good Dolphins teams and the steep climate change. This is one of those situations where jumping out to an early lead takes on some added importance. And at least it's not September.
Mike: On Wednesday, the Patriots didn't do anything notable when it comes to preparing for the climate. It was about 35 degrees in Foxborough and the team was practicing outside. Brady said the main thing a team has to have is mental toughness. Other players, such as receiver Brandon Lloyd and safety Devin McCourty, discussed the importance of hydration so players are still going strong in the fourth quarter. Another topic players touched on was how this is a different Dolphins team than they've seen in recent years, which traces back to the regime change with Joe Philbin taking over as head coach.
Tedy: The stretch where they lost two games in a span of five days -- 37-3 at home to the Titans, and then 19-14 on the road against the Bills -- put a damper on things because they had built some momentum to that point. It would've been easy for the team to fold at that point. They responded this past Sunday with a home win over the Seahawks and that's a sign of a team that has some fight left in it. Joe Philbin and Ryan Tannehill are showing signs of a quarterback/head coach pairing that has some potential.
Mike: Philbin has Massachusetts roots, growing up in the western part of the state in Longmeadow, and he reflected this week on how Patriots games weren't always on TV when he was a youngster. That was a different era in Patriots football -- the games weren't sold out and there were TV blackouts. Philbin's coaching background includes stops at Northeastern and Harvard, so there are some strong ties to this region. He's a real likeable coach who has stressed the foundation of fundamentals at every stop. Two of the most important decisions he's made in establishing his Dolphins program is the hiring of Mike Sherman as offensive coordinator and the first-round selection of rookie Ryan Tannehill at quarterback -- both coming from Texas A&M.
Tedy: That maybe has helped their transition a bit, because they're running a similar offense to what Tannehill did in college. Tannehill is completing 59 percent of his passes and his performance last week stood out as some of his best work of the season. The game was on the line late in the fourth quarter and he had to get his team in field goal range, and he put together a drive that has people in South Florida saying "We may have something here." That type of drive, to take them down and win the game, was really Tannehill's defining moment of his rookie year. The expectations are only going to rise from here, because they think they have the right head coach and quarterback in place.
Mike: From that perspective, it's sort of neat for us to see another up-and-coming quarterback. A few weeks ago, it was the Colts' Andrew Luck and the Patriots had the answers. Now they'll try to do the same with Tannehill.
Tedy: Yes, and Tannehill still makes rookie mistakes. Even against Seattle last week, he was rolling one way and throwing across his body; it was an interception in the end zone that fortunately for him was called back because of a roughing-the-passer penalty. Earlier in the game, Tannehill tried to force it and threw an interception. So you're still seeing some rookie mistakes. He's a good quarterback, but let's keep it in perspective, this is an offense scoring 19.2 points per game (26th in the NFL).
Mike: And in turn, this Patriots team is off the charts when it comes to turnover differential. At plus-24, they easily lead the NFL -- 32 takeaways, 8 giveaways. The Dolphins are minus-10, with 11 takeaways and 21 giveaways. That's the key stat. Dolphins running back Reggie Bush has fumbled three times this year (losing two), so they'll be coming after that ball when it's in his hands. Bush, who has 662 yards on 150 carries (5 TDs) and 24 receptions for 189 yards, figures to be a big part of the Patriots' defensive game plan.
Tedy: Bill Belichick always comes into the team meeting and gives each unit three goals. I think one of the three on defense this week will be to set the edge on Reggie Bush, but it will be altered a bit -- it will be "set the edge and keep the edge." Bush does a great job of recognizing the edge is set, playing with you a little bit by making the defensive end think he's going inside between the tackles, before bouncing out. So the Patriots really have to be disciplined in terms of setting the edge and keeping the edge against Bush. It's similar to when they played the Bills and running back C.J. Spiller and they used players like Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich to peel off their rush and cover him, or 'butch' him as soon as he tries to release, which is coming off the rush and hitting him. That will be a big part of the plan because Bush is one of Tannehill's best weapons.
Mike: This X's and O's aspect of the game takes on even more critical importance when considering Jones -- the Patriots' first-round pick -- might not play with an ankle injury. And his top backup, Jermaine Cunningham, is suspended as we mentioned. It could come down to someone like five-year veteran Trevor Scott, or maybe the team turns to rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower for some of that 'dirty' work. Elsewhere for the Dolphins, receivers Brian Hartline and Davone Bess are tied for the team lead with 55 receptions. Hartline had a 200-yard receiving game early in the season, which made everyone take notice. He's been targeted 92 times, while Bess has been targeted 90 times, and those will be matchups to watch.
Tedy: Then you look at the Dolphins' offensive line, and it's an interesting cast of characters. They have grunts but also some highly skilled athletes. At center, Mike Pouncey -- a first-round pick from 2011 -- is playing great football. He's very athletic. You know you trust your center when he's snapping and then pulling around the edge to block a cornerback. That's how much ability he has. The Vince Wilfork vs. Pouncey matchup will be fun to watch. So you have that, but when you look at left guard Richie Incognito, it's a different story. He struggles athletically, but he plays hard and he knows every trick of the trade. You need guys like that on your team. He just finds a way to hook an arm, grab a jersey, or get in your head and force a personal foul.
Mike: On the other side of the ball, you have a Dolphins defense transitioning to a new style of play under coordinator Kevin Coyle, who comes from the Bengals' 4-3 system.
Tedy: If I were in Bill Belichick's shoes, thinking about what I'd tell my team if I was listing the three most important goals of the week, it would start with being ready for multiple looks. This is a 4-3 base, but in sub, they can bring multiple looks and fronts. They'll mug their linebackers up in the middle, try to disguise things, bring "cat" blitzes, "double A gap blitzes" by the 'backers where they could blitz or drop. They played lots of man coverage last week versus the Seahawks, so No. 1, it's "be ready for multiple looks; they'll try to confuse you." No. 2 would be beating man coverage. You have to get open against this defense because they play man and trust their schemes that they'll eventually get to the quarterback with all their looks and disguises. So it's important for the Patriots' receivers this week to beat man coverage, which is something they've done well in the past. No. 3, it's Cameron Wake, one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. We had Wake on "NFL Live" a few weeks ago and he was asked about his sack dance. He said "That's when I unleash the animal" because he puts in all the preparation and when he gets the sack, it's a great feeling. So if you're the Patriots, you can't let Wake unleash the animal. He's a great pass-rush player, with 9.5 sacks already, and he hustles and stays after it all the time.
Mike: Building off your thoughts on Wake, the Patriots might be without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who missed the Thanksgiving win over the Jets and is listed on the injury report with back and knee ailments. That could thrust second-year right tackle Marcus Cannon into a tough spot in a potential one-on-one matchup with Wake. Cannon did well last week, but this is another level of challenge. One other stat to pass along from ESPN's Stats & Information department -- Brady has been excellent against pressure this year, with 102 pass attempts, 14 touchdowns and no interceptions against five or more rushers. The Dolphins have rushed five or more 40.9 percent of the time, the second highest percentage in the NFL.
Tedy: That's what I'm talking about in terms of the Dolphins' defensive approach -- Coyle, the defensive coordinator, is from the Mike Zimmer school of attack defense. They like to bring rushers and will put their corners on an island in man coverage. Brady usually says "bring it" because he likes to see it, he trusts his offensive line and likes to survey the routes and let them materialize against man coverage.
Mike: Let's not overlook special teams, either.
Tedy: We saw Stephen Gostkowski miss another field goal last week (39 yards). This is an offense where you can have a missed kick here or there, but as it gets toward crunch time and if they're playing outside and the weather is bad, and the game gets tight, those can be valuable points. Tom Brady talked about mental toughness in playing in South Florida, and Gostkowski has the mental toughness to get back on that roll. Let's see if he can do that.
Mike: Gostkowski is now 21-of-26 on the season. As for a prediction on the game, I envision the Dolphins keeping it close before the Patriots pull away late. Some of the injuries would concern me from a Patriots perspective, specifically along the offensive line, at receiver and at right defensive end. But while the Dolphins are clearly headed in the right direction, the Patriots are still in a higher class right now. Patriots 31, Dolphins 17.
Tedy: Two tough games to look ahead to with the Texans and 49ers coming into Foxborough. Are the players looking ahead? That's the question, because a lack of focus by the Patriots is the only way the Dolphins can keep this close. I like what I'm seeing in South Beach with Philbin and Tannehill, but this will be a learning experience for them. Jerod Mayo takes one to the house! Patriots 45, Dolphins 24.