Here is what’s on the line Sunday for the Miami Dolphins against what’s left of the New England Patriots:
Win, and they don’t just sink the bully Patriots to below .500. They’ve also got a chance for the playoffs — a good chance, considering the suddenly friendly closing schedule. The next opponent, Vegas, has lost lost four of five (and lost quarterback Derek Carr). The finale could mean nothing more to Buffalo than a day of rest.
But lose to New England on Sunday and the candle isn’t just blowing out on the Dolphins season. It’s again the Patriots, and a lesser form of them, providing the wind.
As always, this December re-match has one team trying keep the playoff train moving and the other playing the limited role of spoiler. It’s so 2020 the way it lays out, though. It’s opposite of how it has been for two decades — the rivalry in reverse.
It’s New England attempting to ruin the Dolphins' good season. It’s Bill Belichick trying to stave off a losing season against his protege, Brian Flores. It’s the Patriots without a real quarterback while the Dolphins have seen enough of Tua Tagovailoa’s talent to think he could be the real deal.
This game, from the Dolphins’ perspective, is huge.
It’s the biggest game of Flores’ abbreviated era.
Granted, that’s not saying much, if anything. But this is really the game the Dolphins franchise has much of two decades to play. The 2008 Wildcat game? A surprise one-off. The Miami Miracle two years ago or or last year’s win in Foxborough to spoil the Patriots’ chances in the playoffs? Fun, but big-picture irrelevant.
Finally, this game, the storyline is the Dolphins are a developing team on the rise and the Patriots are a quarterback-less team on the fall. Maybe it’s true. Maybe not.
There are more immediate issues anyway, like how Belichick is a career 25-5 against rookie quarterbacks and what he’ll do to pry into the mind of Tagovailoa. Belichick’s work on the other side of the game, though, will have an equal measure in deciding it.
Remember that first impression when these teams met in September how New England wouldn’t miss Tom Brady with Cam Newton playing like that? That idea crumbled long before the cold, dry statistics of December.
New England has thrown for the league’s fewest touchdowns (eight). It ranks 28th in passing yards. It’s fourth in throwing the most interceptions.
“Our passing game still is not as efficient as we need it to be,” Belichick said this week. “Really everything that’s involved: the protection, route distribution, which involves everybody — tight ends, backs, and receivers, timing, and the ability to execute and create separation in man-to-man coverage. So, we continue to work on all those things.”
They won’t be working much on them Sunday. The Dolphins’ strength is its secondary, starting right with the two cornerbacks, Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. And that gets into the real chess match in the game, the one beyond the obvious one of Belichick and Tua.
The Patriots have scored the third-most rushing touchdowns in the league. They’re fifth in rushing yards per game and ninth in rushing attempts. Get the picture?
“Our running game has been more productive than it has been in the past, so I think our receivers have a role in that,” Belichick said of the effort of his pulling guards at wide-out where once Randy Moss and Deion Branch ran.
So these post-Brady Patriots can’t pass but can run. And these still-developing Dolphins stop the pass but rank 24th in run defense. Do you need to be Belichickian to see where the drama in this game will play out?
Belichick is known for dramatic gameplans and could pull one out of the 1940s T-formation. Simple. Direct. And points at a premium, on both side of the ball. Tua will have issues, especially with such little playmaking help. The Dolphins, too, will have to strategically flex its muscle.
Bottom-line: The time has come for the Dolphins to beat the Patriots in a big game for them — not a big one for the Patriots. It’s time to use what they’ve learned of the Flores Way to dismantle the Patriot Way, at least for now.
It’s a must-win day for the Dolphins.
Or wait to win it next year.