If there is a team to knock the Patriots down a peg and keep them from going into the playoffs with a big winning streak, it's the Miami Dolphins.
Bill Belichick's club is not one to look past opponents, but the way the Patriots' defense plays, they keep opponents in the game, even inferior opponents (see: Colts, Redskins).
Before Tom Brady threw for 517 yards in Week One, including a 99-yard touchdown to Wes Welker, Chad Henne marched the Dolphins downfield with ease to take the lead. Then, the Dolphins couldn't stop Brady, which started Miami on a seven-game losing streak to open its season.
This Dolphins team is very different. They have won five of their last seven contests and the offense has moved the ball well with Matt Moore at QB. RB Reggie Bush is excelling in his role as an every-down back, with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
What makes this matchup most concerning for the Patriots is the way Miami's defense has played. The Dolphins will enter Foxborough with the league's third-best run defense, and the Patriots have struggled to move the ball at times when their run is bottled up.
Miami will counter the Patriots' receivers with a pair of young, physical corners — Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. And LBs Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett match up better with the Patriots' tight ends than most teams do. Mike Nolan's aggressive 3-4 defense could cause problems for Brady.
The Patriots could clinch a first-round bye, and even home-field advantage in the AFC — which is pretty impressive considering how poor their defense has played and the fact that this team lost back-to-back games earlier this season. They need to view this game with a playoff lens, as the Dolphins will provide a good test for the Patriots to get ready for the playoffs.
With Todd Bowles as interim head coach, there was no drop-off in the Dolphins' chip-on-their-shoulder attitude and confidence, and they have nothing to lose against New England this week. They would love nothing more than playing the spoiler role.
This is not a team for the Patriots to look past and it will be the toughest opponent New England has faced since playing the Eagles in Week 12. The Patriots should win, but the NFL has taught us this season that nothing is a given, especially if you can't stop anyone. Saturday's game also could offer a glimpse of what to expect from New England in the playoffs, for better or worse.