It seems like every single one of New England-Miami’s second matchup of the season is played in Miami, in the last week of the regular season with something on the line for the Patriots. It happened last season, and it’s happening this season, too. Though, the difference between the two games should be night and day.
If the Patriots struggle anywhere on the road, it’s in Denver and in Miami. The Magic City hasn’t been particularly nice to New England, ever, really. Last season, the Pats ended up virtually throwing the season away in their remaining couple of weeks, especially in Miami. With a mere win in any of the last couple of regular season games, they would have clinched the number one seed in the AFC and be granted home field advantage, which would have been ever so crucial to their playoff success. This strategy of giving the season away to attempt to keep Denver out of the playoffs failed. New England’s season came to a heartbreaking end in...well, Denver, of course.
In last year’s Week 17 in Miami, New England’s game plan was atrocious. All they wanted to do was run the ball, run the ball some more, protect Brady, and run the ball again. The Patriots ran the ball 16 out of their first 18 offensive plays. Steven Jackson was their starting running back, and that is telling. Blount was injured at this time, Dion Lewis was recovering from a recently torn ACL and James White was used primarily as a catching back. This did not bode well in sunny Florida.
As for protecting Brady, that failed in every way possible. TB12 was beaten, battered and bruised endlessly. New England’s offensive line pretty much let Miami’s defensive line have a field day with the lower half of Brady’s poor body. There were a few hits in particular that were heart-stopping for any Patriots fan. How he got out of there alive, I’ll never know.
At the time, the Patriots were beaten up as it is. As I mentioned before, half of their running back core was hurt. Gronkowski was still injured and hadn’t played for a few weeks, as goes for Edelman. The o-line was a merry-go-round of different lineups during the entirety of the season due to piling up injuries, but especially at that time in the season.
The 2015 Miami Dolphins were forgettable, to put it nicely. It’s still upsetting to think that New England lost to them the way they did. Their head coach was fired just weeks before the Week 17 matchup, and the coaching staff entirely was in shambles. Tannehill sucked, per expectations. Injuries plagued their team, as well, to an eventually 6-10 record. How Tannehill picked apart New England’s defense remains beyond me. All the Patriots had to do was win that game to basically assure them a path straight to Super Bowl 50, but quickly decided to flush that opportunity down the toilet.
This season? None of that will go down, I can tell you that. Nearly everything about the Patriots this time around is different. Their running backs are all at full health; Dion Lewis is back to his shifty, incredibly fast self and has yet to miss a beat since returning mid-season. LeGarrette Blount is one of the better RB’s in the league and has already broken the Patriots’ single-season rushing touchdown record. James White is playing more of a role than I personally expected at this time. Plus, old man Steven Jackson isn’t here anymore, so none of that will have to ensue. Even if the Patriots did follow their asinine game plan from last time (which they won’t), they’d have a way more successful time with it.
The thing that stands out to me the most, comparing this current Patriots team to the last, is the offensive line’s improvement. Everything that could have gone wrong last season as it relates to the o-line went wrong. Brady was a hurting man week in and week out. That’s not the deal this year. Brady is rarely touched, let alone sacked with this Scar version of the o-line. I can’t see a scenario where Brady is treated the way he was last time. From the complete health of the linemen to the drastic physical and gameplan-related improvements, everything is different and for the better. This has allowed Brady to have just the type of season that he’s having individually.
The greatest quarterback of all time is playing pretty much the best football of his entire career, and that’s saying something. Even without Gronk, he’s still playing at the incredible level that he has since his Week 5 return. The offense around him as a whole is as healthy as they’ve been in a while, despite being Gronk-less. This is a totally different version of Brady that Miami is seeing this season. In their Week 2 matchup earlier this season, Miami faced both Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, so they’ve got quite the storm coming their way.
Unlike last season, New England is making a point to make sure that this regular season doesn’t end like the last. Everyone is doing their best to adopt “a huge sense of urgency” and use the previous year as a learning experience. The veterans of the team are stressing the importance of this to the rest of the locker room on a frequent basis, as is Coach Belichick. Everyone knows what happened in the past and really don’t want to repeat any of that again.
As for the Dolphins, they’re quite a different team, too. Compared to last year, they’re actually in the playoffs. With a Chiefs win over the Broncos on Sunday Night Football, that placed Miami in the final AFC wild card spot, eliminating Denver from postseason play. Having a divisional rival actually in the playoffs is something relatively new to the Patriots, but that shouldn’t come as a threat or be a real issue.
All of that being said, Miami may very well rest their starters. They’ll obviously have to play sooner in the playoffs compared to New England, so it wouldn’t totally surprise me to see a practice squad version of the Dolphins come Sunday afternoon, that of which would be ideal for New England. The Patriots have yet to clinch the one seed, and can do so with a win over the 'Phins.
Franchise QB Ryan Tannehill suffered an ACL injury just weeks ago, and backup Matt Moore should be making the start, as he has for the last few weeks in lieu of Tannehill. Moore just recently made the first start of his career, so I think that speaks for itself, more so against a team like New England.
Not to be swept under the rug is Miami’s current 10-5 record. The team as a whole actually doesn’t look horrible, most of the time, anyways. Their head coach, Adam Gase, isn’t the worst. They have a persistent offense, consisting of guys like Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake. The 'Phins’ offensive line has been injured for much of the year, but has been sufficient. They don’t completely suck even with a guy like Matt Moore at starting quarterback. I’m sure they’ll be a first-round exit, but they’ve made improvement across the board.
In summary, things will be different this time around, as they should be. Playing in Miami is a tall task for a Patriots team, but they’re up for the challenge. They’re playing to win and playing for home field advantage. We’ve never seen this type of Tom Brady before, so who knows, maybe he’ll dominate in the Sunshine State at last. If anything, New England won’t run the ball on literally every single play and Brady won’t get molested by Suh, Cameron Wake and Mario Williams. The path to Super Bowl 51 is in the hands of the Patriots, no excuses, and all they have to do is win this game in Miami.