By: Bob George/BosSports.net
October 07, 2006

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Any such thing as an easy division opponent?

Patriots/Dolphins
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday 10/8/06
1:00 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 4 (HD), 711, 724 (HD)
2006 Team
Records:
Patriots 3-1
Dolphins 1-3
Latest Line: Patriots by 10
Not for the Patriots. They squeaked by Buffalo at home by two points in the opener. They scored 24 on the Jets, gave up 17, and hung on for dear life. Now the Miami Dolphins come to town, all of 1-3 and looking positively miserable in doing so.

The coming of former Viking quarterback Daunte Culpepper to Fish Town has not materialized the way Nick Saban thought it would, at least for now. Culpepper has completed sixty percent of his passes, has been picked off three times, has thrown two touchdown passes and has a passer rating of 77.0. But he has been sacked a ridiculous 21 times thus far (at this pace, he could be sacked 84 times at season's end). And he has rushed for only 20 yards on 10 carries so far this season.

The real Dolphin rushing threat, Ronnie Brown, has rushed for only 239 yards in four games with a 3.5 yards per carry average. As a team, the Dolphins have a 4.1 average per carry, but that's thanks to a wideout, Chris Chambers and his 56 yards on three carries.

The defense has been okay, with usual standouts Jason Taylor and Zack Thomas doing their yeoman work. Former Patriot Keith Traylor is starting at one defensive tackle position along with Vonnie Holliday. Channing Crowder is second on the team in tackles behind fellow linebacker Thomas. The Dolphins continue to be a team that will be tough to run on.

The Dolphins always play the Patriots tough. The Patriots are 6-3 against the Dolphins in their last nine meetings. It would be 7-2 if the Patriots had tried harder to win the season finale last year which was supposed to give the Patriots a better playoff seed by finishing fourth in the conference (that strategy ruined when Pittsburgh knocked out Cincinnati at home in the Wild Card round). Who can forget 2004, and that crazy rally by Miami at the end of that Monday night encounter when the Patriots blew a 13-point lead?

The Patriots are putting their best spin on this game, as they always do. All you hear coming out of the Patriots' locker room is talk that would make you think that all those fools who predicted a Miami Super Bowl appearance were dead on. Naturally, you won't hear anything else from the Patriots. Nothing they say will in any way spur on a division rival to pull off a road upset at the place of the team which is favored to win the division.

This is a Dolphin team which is fresh off a 17-15 loss at Houston. The Texans are a very bad team, and the Dolphins looked worse. Jason Taylor was moved to say afterwards that his team was the "worst team in the NFL" after the loss to the Texans.

This is a game where the Patriots should knock the Dolphins silly. Whether they actually do or not remains to be seen.

The Dolphins will approach this game as if it was an elimination game, and in effect, for them, it is. If the Dolphins lose this game, they go to 1-4, three games behind the Patriots, and probably don't have a shot at the playoffs. They will play with desperation, multiplied by inspiration of playing a division rival which has enjoyed the prizes of late which everyone in South Florida thinks belongs to them by birthright.

The Patriots, meanwhile, will likely attack Culpepper with ferocity on defense, all the while having little trouble shutting down Brown and the Dolphin running game. It will fall on the Patriot offense to try and figure out the right game plan to attack the Dolphin defense if the front seven take away the running game (it's not likely that the Dolphins will try and put eight in the box).

If the Patriots are unable to run the ball, and if the defense does what it very well should do, Tom Brady can take his sweet time and figure out how to get the ball to his new receivers. As long as the offensive line protects him well enough, a rebuilt Miami secondary should not prove to be that tough to figure out and find open receivers. Brady seemed to find his ways with Doug Gabriel last week; look for Brady to continue to explore and develop this budding football relationship.

Had the Patriots beaten Denver two weeks ago, at 4-0 the Patriots could very well look at this as a trap game. This is a trap game anyway, regardless of 4-0 or 3-1. The Patriots will be extra careful and not get careless against a weak Dolphin team they should handle at home with ease. But if the Patriots do get careless or listless, and if Miami is able to engage the Patriots in such a tight defensive struggle where a field goal could make the difference, Miami could steal one at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots play their best when they feel like disrespected underdogs. This is just such a game where they could bring their "C" game to the table, unlike last week at Cincinnati where they brought their "A+" game. A "C" effort might still be enough if the Patriots do indeed have their way with Culpepper, but Bill Belichick will do what he has to do to make sure his players keep thinking of the Dolphins as if it were still 1972 and the visitors are something like 47-0 right now.

As far as the angle regarding Saban and his relationship with mentor Belichick, that really won't matter. Belichick knows Saban as well as anyone. He knows that his protégé doesn't have the horses, at least yet. As for Saban, he will continue to learn and develop in the pro game, but he doesn't yet figure to outcoach his former boss.

Despite being favored by ten points, this game might actually be decided from between three to seven points. If Miami comes out and plays anything but a highly intense and spirited game, the Patriots should win and cover. This being a division rival, as well as the desperation factor, expect Miami to play the Patriots tough all the way.

There are still plenty of living, breathing Miami fans who still think it's the Shula/Griese era. They can't be blamed for that, as all northeast USA basketball fans still pine for the days of Larry, Kevin and the Chief. But the Dolphins right now are a work in progress under Saban, and while anything can happen on Sunday, the Dolphins still have a ways to go before pundits should really consider them serious Super Bowl contenders.

That said, Belichick will still continue to tell his players that it really is Shula and Griese they are playing, and to get after it best they can. Even with Saban and Culpepper, it will still take getting after it the best they can if they want to go into the bye week 4-1 instead of 3-2.


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