NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
New England’s regular-season finale features a matchup against the 7-8 Miami Dolphins, who have played surprisingly well under new head coach Joe Philbin and nearly upset New England four weeks ago in what was ultimately a 23-16 Patriots victory. This afternoon’s outcome will significantly affect New England’s playoff seeding; a win could push New England into one of the top two playoff seeds, while a loss would necessitate playing in the wild card round against either Cincinnati or Indianapolis. Read on for ten keys to the Patriots’ season finale.
1. How far into the game will New England’s starting lineup play against Miami?
All indications are that Bill Belichick intends to play to win this week in order to secure a higher playoff seed; however, that may not be the best approach. In 2009, Wes Welker tore his ACL in week seventeen and the Patriots were eliminated by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild card round the following week; another major injury would be devastating to New England’s championship aspirations.
Additionally, New England may benefit from finishing with the fourth seed this season; such a finish would ensure that the Patriots’ first two opponents, Indianapolis and Houston, are teams that New England has played well against this season. If the Patriots finish with the third seed, they would play against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round and the Denver Broncos if they win that contest; a matchup against Peyton Manning is less appealing than another game against the Texans. The Patriots may technically be able to secure a first-round playoff bye, but realistically that opportunity seems unlikely; in addition to an Indianapolis victory over Houston, Denver would have be upset by 2-13 Kansas City in order for New England to finish first.
Fortunately, the Texans will play Indianapolis in a 1:00 contest, meaning that the Patriots will know how high their playoff seed could potentially be by the time they take the field (at least, whether or not they can finish first in the conference.)
2. Will Tom Brady be able to avoid throwing more interceptions this week?
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was considered the frontrunner for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award heading into week thirteen at Miami; however, with the exception of his four-touchdown performance against the Texans, Brady has struggled to match his early-season production over the past four games. Brady completed just 24/40 passes against Miami with one touchdown and one interception; his 5.95 yards per attempt in that contest represent his lowest figure of the season.
Brady was intercepted twice in a loss vs. the San Francisco 49ers, and then threw two more picks in an ugly win against the Jaguars last week; Brady also failed to complete at least 60% of his passes for the first and second times this year over the past two weeks. This afternoon, Brady must significantly improve his accuracy and decision-making in order to enter the postseason with some semblance of rhythm in the passing game.
3. Can Sebastian Vollmer and New England’s offensive line protect Brady?
A lack of sound protection was one of the contributing factors to Brady’s weak performance the last time New England played Miami. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, arguably the Patriots’ most reliable offensive linemen this season, surrendered 1.5 sacks, one quarterback hit, and four pressures on the game, all but one pressure coming against elite Dolphins edge rusher Cameron Wake, who thus far has fifteen sacks on the season.
In addition to Wake, other pass rushers which may give Brady some trouble include defensive ends Jared Odrick and Koa Misi and defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Soliai split a sack with Wake back in week thirteen, while Misi sacked Brady once as well. In order to disrupt Brady, look for the Dolphins to blitz their linebackers and defensive backs with some frequency as well. Last time, they were rewarded with a sack by blitzing strong safety Reshad Jones, who also intercepted Brady on a pass intended for tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Jared Odrick and Derrick Shelby also recorded a pair of hits on Brady in week thirteen. New England may be wise to focus on the short-to-intermediate passing game today, while retaining an additional blocker or two to defend against overload blitzes.
4. What kind of role will returning tight end Rob Gronkowski assume today?
One additional blocking option which should be available in the game today is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is expected to be active for the season finale despite missing the past five games with a broken forearm suffered during New England’s victory over the Indianapolis Colts. The benefits of a healthy Gronkowski are obvious – just look at his seven catches, 137 yards, and two touchdowns against Indianapolis before getting hurt – but it seems risky to rush him back into action if he’s operating at less than one hundred percent.
To what extent Gronkowski will be integrated into the offensive game plan is unclear; the circumstances are obviously different, but after missing four weeks with a high-ankle sprain, fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez participated in 38 offensive snaps against the Seattle Seahawks back in week six. Something similar may make sense for Gronkowski; allow him to test his surgically-repaired forearm without relying on him to provide most of New England’s offensive output.
Tom Brady relied almost exclusively on Hernandez and wide receiver Wes Welker the last time New England played Miami; another option such as Gronkowski could drastically improve Brady’s production.
5. Will Brandon Lloyd be able to separate from cornerback Sean Smith?
Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith, who is expected to receive Miami’s franchise tag designation at the conclusion of this season should the club and Smith find themselves unable to agree on a long-term deal, is one of the most physically talented cornerbacks in the entire league. At 6’3” and 215 pounds, Smith’s combination of size and athleticism may prevent Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd from assembling his fourth impressive performance in a row.
Over the past three weeks, Lloyd has caught 23/37 passes for 341 yards and one touchdown; his increased output could potentially be seen as a function of Gronkowski’s absence. However, Lloyd caught just one pass for 10 yards the last time New England played Miami, his lone catch coming against R.J. Stanford. When targeted by Brady, Smith allowed just one reception for seven yards on five targets: Wes Welker’s touchdown reception. Brady’s other three passes intended for Welker fell incomplete while Smith was in coverage.
Smith isn’t infalliable – he has allowed six touchdown passes on the season – but is certainly a player to avoid if possible; last week against Buffalo, Smith allowed just one completion for eight yards on three targets.