Few predicted before the season that Sunday's meeting between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins would have playoff implications for both teams. But New England and Miami each has a lot at stake in this AFC East matchup.
The Patriots (8-3) are fighting for a first-round bye and possibly home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They trail the Baltimore Ravens (9-2) and Houston Texans (10-1) in the chase for the top two seeds in the AFC with five games remaining.
Meanwhile, the surprising Dolphins (5-6) want to keep their playoff hopes alive. Miami is only one game out of the final wild-card spot behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-5).
Something has to give when these two rivals meet at Sun Life Stadium. Our ESPN.com experts weigh in on this matchup.
James Walker, AFC East blog: Mike, it's no surprise the Patriots are playing meaningful December games. But Miami is a total shock. I thought this would be a rebuilding year for the Dolphins with a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and rookie head coach (Joe Philbin). But the fact that sports fans in South Florida will still be talking about the Dolphins in December -- and not the Miami Heat -- is a miracle in itself. In terms of the big picture, I think we’re seeing the beginning of a new threat developing in the AFC East. The New York Jets are no longer a threat to the Patriots, as we saw on Thanksgiving, and the Buffalo Bills never seem to have it together. But Miami is a young, up-and-coming team that should be solid in the next year or two. Sunday is a good measuring stick to see where the Dolphins stand against the best team in the division. Mike, how are the Patriots viewing this game?
Mike Reiss, ESPNBoston.com: James, the Patriots call these type of situations "hat-and-T-shirt games." Our colleague Tedy Bruschi came up with that saying because if the Patriots win, they clinch the AFC East and will have hats and T-shirts waiting for them. They have two difficult games after this one -- back-to-back home prime-timers against Houston (Dec. 10/ESPN) and San Francisco (Dec. 16/NBC) -- but I don't see them overlooking the Dolphins. South Florida has often been a challenging place for the Patriots to play. I think they respect the Dolphins, and specifically the threat that running back Reggie Bush can be and how stingy the defense has been in the red zone and on third down. Still, the Patriots have looked lethal the past two games and should be up for the task.
Walker: Miami’s front seven has been solid most of the year. But there is a huge mismatch with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throwing against Miami’s secondary. The Dolphins are 26th against the pass and have been short on cornerback depth all season. Opponents have been picking on Miami corners Nolan Carroll, Jimmy Wilson and R.J. Stanford. The Patriots have enough weapons to spread Miami out and take advantage of these matchups. Brady is seeing the field extremely well. He has thrown 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions during New England’s five-game winning streak. It will be up to Miami’s offense and Tannehill to keep pace. Andrew Luck recently struggled against New England. Why do rookie quarterbacks often get embarrassed against Bill Belichick’s schemes?
Reiss: I'm not sure I would necessarily say that has been the case. This Patriots defense has done some great things in recent weeks, but it has also had its struggles at times. The main thing the Patriots have going for them is their amazing turnover differential. They are plus-24 -- easily the best in the NFL. But opponents have moved the ball on them at times. I would envision the Patriots’ plan to be centered around Bush. Try to take him away as both a rusher and receiver, and look to create turnovers from there.
Walker: Miami’s running game averaged 6.8 yards per carry last week against Seattle. The Dolphins are at their best then they can run and stop the run. This might be the only way for the Dolphins to beat the Patriots. Miami, in many ways, has to play defense with its offense. The Dolphins have to control the clock and reduce the number of plays for the Patriots’ offense. Miami is not the type of team that wins in shootouts. The Dolphins average only 19.2 points per game. This is a plodding, physical team. And if this game gets into the 30s, that probably means the Patriots win.
Reiss: I'd agree with that, James. It's challenging to control the tempo against the Patriots, but most of the teams that have had success in recent years did so by controlling the ball on offense. The other area that I think is important to focus on is the Dolphins' pass rush against the Patriots' offensive line. The O-line has generally been excellent for the Patriots this season, and last Thursday, they were without starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and didn't miss a beat. Cameron Wake can obviously be a disruptive player, so let's keep a close eye on the edges and if the Patriots can continue to protect Brady, whose name seems be generating some momentum in the MVP discussion. On the other side of the ball, the right defensive end spot bears watching. That's where the absence of rookie Chandler Jones (sidelined since injuring his ankle Nov. 18 against the Colts) and top backup Jermaine Cunningham (four-game suspension) could create a large void. Jones' status could become more clear in the coming days, and if he plays, that's a one-on-one matchup I don't want to miss -- Jones versus Dolphins left tackle Jake Long. If Jones doesn't play, can the Patriots generate enough pass rush without two of their best threats?
Walker: With huge games looming against the 49ers (8-2-1) and Texans (10-1), normally I would label this a trap game. But as you mentioned, the Patriots are not the type of team that looks ahead. They do a good job of focusing week to week and that should be more than enough to handle the Dolphins. I predict New England wins 31-17. The Dolphins don’t have enough horses to compete with the Patriots just yet. But it’s a good chance for the Dolphins to see where they are at this stage.
Reiss: The Patriots are the class of the AFC East and have been for most of the past decade. The question that interests me is which division foe -- Bills, Dolphins or Jets -- is closest to making a run at them. I pick the Dolphins because I think they have the greatest future potential at quarterback. I have always enjoyed conversations with Philbin, who grew up in Massachusetts, and believe he is the right coach for the Dolphins. He's establishing the foundation with the Dolphins and believes in fundamental football first and foremost. They are on their way. But I agree with your thoughts in this game, James, as I see the Patriots on a different level.