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Stopping Tom Brady and the Patriots’ passing game is tough enough, but Miami can pull off an upset if it can stop New England’s running game.
Patriots running game vs. Dolphins run defense
Ignore the Dolphins' 7-8 record and their elimination from playoff contention — this is a team playing for a .500 record in Week 17 and is a group that will not lay down for the Patriots, who are gunning for a first-round bye.
If the Texans lose to the Colts in the early slate of Sunday's games, a Patriots win over the Dolphins (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff) would bump them up to one of the top two seeds. The Broncos, who also have a one-game lead over New England, play the Chiefs at the same time as the Pats-Dolphins game.
The Dolphins have had recent success against the Patriots, even if it hasn’t translated to wins. They jumped out to a 17-0 lead in Week 16 last season before falling 27-24, and lost by a touchdown four weeks ago in South Florida. Miami’s front seven on defense has been the equalizer. Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins won’t be able to win in a track meet with the Patriots, so the "D" needs to neutralize New England’s potent and balanced attack.
Sure, stopping Brady is key, and edge rushers Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick will need to apply pressure early and often, but the Dolphins would gain a serious edge by bottling up the run game. That is how teams have defeated the Patriots this season, and Miami definitely has the personnel to do so.
In the four games this season in which the Patriots have been held to fewer than 100 rushing yards, they have a 0-4 record. That means they are a perfect 11-0 when rushing for 100 or more yards.
In Week 13, the Dolphins held the Patriots to 10 rushing yards in the first half. Stevan Ridley, who has had a breakout season, had four carries for four yards, while Danny Woodhead had three carries for seven yards.
In the fourth quarter, though, Ridley had his way with Miami’s front, rushing for 46 yards during a drive that lasted 7:18 and helped seal a 23-16 victory for New England. The Dolphins cannot let that happen.
It starts in the middle, where DTs Paul Soliai and Randy Starks go against a Patriots interior O-line of Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly. Soliai can occupy two blockers while Starks has a knack for getting a step into the backfield to stop a running play. The Patriots lead the league in run plays over left guard (where they gain 3.88 yards per carry) and like to catch defenses off guard with an up-tempo attack that mixes the run and pass, not allowing D-linemen to win at the point of attack.
For Miami, that’s where LBs Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett come in, as the pair needs to fill gaps and keep Ridley, Woodhead and Shane Vereen from getting past the second level.
The Dolphins’ defensive strength is obviously up front — CB Sean Smith and S Reshad Jones have played well in the secondary, and Jones picked off Brady in Week 13, but stopping the run will go a long way to a potential upset. The Dolphins need to keep this game low-scoring, and putting Brady in 3rd-and-long situations would play into Miami’s hands.
For the Patriots, the Dolphins are a great test for the O-line, which struggled the past two weeks against the 49ers and Jaguars. The Pats want to run the ball with this 2012 offense, and if they can do it successfully against Miami, they can run away with this season finale and go into the playoffs with some momentum.