On Monday night, New England finishes off their three game divisional stretch with the 2-1 Miami Dolphins. In past years, the Patriots struggled to take their talents to South Beach and win. Quite frankly, they have struggled to win on the road at all. Over their last eight road games, New England is 1-7. After losing on the road to the Jets two weeks ago, the Patriots do not want to start 0-2 in road games with their divisional rivals.
Last week, the Patriots struggled against an opponent that they have usually dominated in the Buffalo Bills. The offense was in sync as Tom Brady threw for three touchdowns, two of them to Randy Moss, but it was the defense and special teams that were lacking. In the first three quarters, Buffalo was controlling the game on offense with their triple headed running attack of Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, and C.J Spiller. Also, Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to get the ball downfield to Lee Evans and Steve Johnson on a consistent basis to take advantage of Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington at the cornerback position. Spiller also had a kickoff return for a touchdown in that third quarter. However, it was New England’s running game that saved the day. A combination of Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris, Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead ran for over 200 yards in a 38-30 victory.
As for the Miami Dolphins, they suffered their first defeat last Sunday night to the New York Jets 31-23. The defense allowed Mark Sanchez to throw for three touchdowns after allowing just 20 points in their first two games. Chad Henne threw for 363 yards in the loss, but he was finally able to establish a rhythm with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who caught ten passes for 166 yards. True, the Jets did not have all-pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, but Antonio Cromartie is not a bad replacement for a cover corner and definitely a step above from what the Patriots’ secondary has played like as of late. Tony Sparano knows how to coach defense and they have one of the most underrated signings of the offseason in Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker. Plus, you have to deal with Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown, and the Wildcat.
Here are my keys to the game:
1. Marshall-Marshall-Marshall: With Brandon Marshall now in Miami, New England will now have to deal with him twice a year and with their secondary, it could be a nightmare Monday night. Last year, against veteran cornerback Shawn Springs, Marshall caught eight passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns. After Henne was able to connect frequently with him last Sunday, I think Bill Belichick should put Devin McCourty on Marshall for this game. Every Patriots’ game so far, McCourty has been praised for his coverage skills. Let’s see if the rookie cornerback out of Rutgers can do any better than Butler or Arrington. As a Patriot fan, you would rather have Davone Bess and Brian Hartline hurt you than the aforementioned Marshall.
2. Get the ball to the Tight Ends: In Miami’s loss last week, they let Dustin Keller catch two touchdowns in the first half as well as allow nearly 100 yards receiving. This is the perfect situation for guys like Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski to get involved in the offense. Hernandez had six catches for 65 yards in the win last week and has been a downfield threat for New England in the early going. Wes Welker is an option as well considering he tends to dominate against his former team. But, Miami’s pass defense was considered a liability coming into the season for allowing deep pass plays.
3. WILDCAT: Miami did not use much of the wildcat against the Jets, but New England still needs to prepare for the tricky wildcat system. As Patriots’ fans sadly remember, in 2008, Miami racked up 461 yards in a 38-13 win at Foxborough where the system was first introduced. In order to force Chad Henne to beat them this week, New England has to do a much better job of stopping the run on Monday night than they were last week.
4. Stay Balanced: In the 38-30 win over Buffalo last week, New England was able for once to balance their amount of passing plays with the amount of rushing plays. In order for Brady to get the ball downfield, they need to keep the Miami defense honest. The running game can also help in the second half because in the last eight road games, the offense has struggled for New England. This includes the two interceptions Brady threw in the second half in the loss to the Jets two weeks ago.
Prediction: As previously mentioned, this game all boils down to can New England’s secondary stop Brandon Marshall or at least contain the number of big plays that he has. Tom Brady is 3-5 in his career at Miami, but the Patriots’ offense is expected to put up points and make this a shootout. If the Patriots can keep the defense on their heels with a balanced attack and can take the blows from Miami’s offense for four quarters, they have a great chance to win this game. New England needs to respond in the second half which comes down to making the correct adjustments in a tough road environment. This game could come down to who has the ball last. But, I will take New England to hang on for a late victory, having won 6 of their last 7 Monday Night Football games.
Patriots 27 Dolphins 24