(SportsNetwork.com) - Three weeks ago, it looked like a sure-fire matchup of
the two best teams in the AFC East. Now, it looks more like the Adversity
Regardless of how it's labeled, the Sunday afternoon Week 8 contest between
the host New England Patriots and the visiting Miami Dolphins is one that
features a pair of teams growing increasingly desperate for a victory.
The Patriots enter while still holding their accustomed spot atop the
division, but that status got an unexpected challenge last week when they
dropped a 30-27 overtime decision to the upstart New York Jets, who lurk a
game behind in the standings.
Miami, meanwhile, was 3-0 to start the season but has since plummeted back to
the East's middle ground - in this case, third place in a four-team division -
with three straight losses.
New England hasn't lost two in a row in the division since 2006, when it was
beaten consecutively by the Jets and the Dolphins. The Patriots nonetheless
finished 12-4, won the East and advanced to the AFC Championship Game that
year before losing to the Indianapolis Colts.
Against the Jets last week, Tom Brady and Co. churned out just 295 total
yards, marking the third time in seven games they'd been held under 300 and
the second time this season it occurred against New York.
Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes - 22-of-46 - for the third
time as well and did not throw a TD pass.
He hadn't had a sub-50 percent game in the last three seasons.
All this occurred with previously injured tight end Rob Gronkowski on the
field for the first time after he'd missed the first six games while
recovering from offseason surgeries. He caught eight passes for
114 yards while Brady targeted him 17 times - indicating a clearer comfort
level with him than with any of the Patriots' other young receivers.
Miami has never beaten the Patriots in New England with Brady as the primary
"You've got to be able to spread it around, there's no question about that,"
Brady said. "It just happens to be if a guy is a particular read on a play and
he is open, you let it rip, whoever it is. Gronk, when he is on the field, he
is obviously a part of the reads. Whether he is the first read, the second
read or the third read."
One game in, Gronkowski is already the team's fifth-leading receiver. He
caught two passes for 42 yards, including a 23-yard TD, in a Week 17 game
against Miami last season, won by the Patriots, 28-0.
"You always get the jitters the first game back and everything. It's just
football now, Gronkowski said. "This is my fourth year. I've got to just go
out there and do what I've got to do, listen to the coaches, listen to the
players and just practice to the best of my ability so I can be ready for
Sunday, and keep a rhythm going every single week."
Perhaps a more glaring concern for New England is the defense, which allowed
30 points for the first time this season and to a Jets team that had scored 30
just once in its last 16 games.
New York held the ball for 46 minutes, 13 seconds and Jets running back Chris
Ivory went for 104 yards on 34 carries to become the first triple-digit rusher
against the Patriots in 22 games.
The Jets' run-heavy attack took full advantage of the absences of injured
tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (shoulder), both of
whom are out for the season. Also absent Sunday were cornerback Aqib Talib
with a hip problem and tackle Tommy Kelly with a knee injury.
Talib and Kelly are questionable for Sunday, and the Patriots reached for a
healthy body this week when they re-signed Andre Carter, a former Pro Bowl
defensive end who was released by the Oakland Raiders just before the start of
the regular season.
"He's a hard-working guy that's given us great leadership in the past and is a
good teammate," New England coach Bill Belichick said.
In spite of the gashing by the Jets, the Patriots still sit fifth in the
league in scoring defense - 18.1 points per game - and face a Dolphins team
struggling to rediscover the continuity it had while sweeping Cleveland,
Indianapolis and Atlanta in Weeks 1, 2 and 3.
"We're in a tough spot right now," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "We have
to face the adversity and grow from it. There are two ways we can go. We can
tank it, or we can turn it around."
Tannehill, who was limited at Wednesday's practice with a sore shoulder, has
been sacked a league-high 26 times, including twice last week in a loss to
Buffalo. His two interceptions and lost fumble against the Bills increased his
season turnover total to 11 - fourth in the NFL.
Miami made a transaction designed to improve the QB's protection up from on
Monday, acquiring left tackle Bryant McKinnie from the Baltimore Ravens.
McKinnie has started 152 games in parts of 12 seasons with Minnesota and
Baltimore. He was a Pro Bowl player in 2009.
"The decision-making has to improve," coach Joe Philbin said. "And our
protection at times has to improve."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Pounding the rock.
One of the glaring absences from the Miami attack through its initial six
games has been a quality run game. The Dolphins seemed re-committed to
advancing on the ground while taking on Buffalo last week and got 60 yards
from Daniel Thomas and 48 more from Lamar Miller.
New England saw the Jets run the ball 52 times in New York's win last week,
which could provide a blueprint for Patriots foes going forward.
A better Brady.
The New England QB is on his way to the Hall of Fame for his career-long body
of work, but chances are his induction video won't include many highlights
Instead, as mentioned earlier, Brady has fallen off his prodigious past -
thanks in part to inexperience and injury in the receiving corps to be sure,
but also due to some accuracy concerns from the passer himself. He'll need to
be on point under duress against a strong Miami pass rush.
With Brady in something of a recent funk, it's pretty tempting to suggest
Miami - with a moderately passable run game, along with a high-end receiver in
Mike Wallace - is in position to prolong the Patriots' miseries.
However, Tannehill himself seems in a tailspin of his own and New England is
typically not the place to work out such kinks.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 25, Dolphins 22
The Sports Network