By: Ian Logue
Bill Belichick is no stranger to success when it comes to the way his team closes out a season.
Overall the Patriots are 43-7 in the month of December with Belichick at the helm, which is the best record in that month among head coaches with one team in NFL history. They’ve won all of their games over the final month seven times since 2001, and will be looking to take the first step in making it eight against the Dolphins in Miami on Sunday.
At stake is also a chance to lock up the division, which would make it the fourth straight for New England and would keep them on pace with other AFC teams like Baltimore (9-2) and Houston (10-1) in terms of their overall record, the latter of which the Patriots will battle next when the Texans visit Foxboro for a Monday night game on December 10th.
While it’s easy to look past the Dolphins, this week’s game likely won’t be an easy one. Miami’s starting to play better and is coming off of a win over a team the Patriots couldn’t beat earlier this season, defeating the Seattle Seahawks 24-21 thanks to a last second field goal. In that game rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill finished 18-of-26 for 253 yards and a touchdown on a day where the Dolphins put together 435 yards of total offense against the NFL’s fifth ranked defense.
It’s New England’s first meeting against Tannehill and the Dolphins this season, with the Patriots currently 1-1 against rookie quarterbacks. They lost to Seattle’s Russell Wilson several weeks ago and have since beaten the Colts’ Andrew Luck, but Tannehill will be the next player Belichick’s defense will have to try and shut down as New England looks to improve to 9-4 on the year.
After taking a closer look, here are five keys for Sunday’s AFC East showdown Miami:
1) Contain Davone Bess: Against the Seahawks Bess finished with a career best 7 catches for 129 yards, with 44 of them coming on his team’s game winning drive. He’s currently second in receiving yards for Miami with 715 yards on the season, which is already well ahead of the 537 he finished with in 2011 and he’s definitely starting to look like more than just a slot receiver. The last time New England faced him Bess had just three catches for 39 yards along with a touchdown, but things are different this year and he looks like he could be more of a factor this time around.
2) Stop Reggie Bush: For Tannehill to really be successful, Miami will need to have some success running the ball and Bush will be the guy Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots front seven will have to keep in check. Bush rushed for 113 yards in their final match-up in Foxboro back on Christmas Eve last season, but was held to just 38 yards in their first meeting last year in Miami. If they can have success against him this time around and force Tannehill into long-yardage situations, it should certainly make things a little easier.
Ridley’s been a big upgrade this season and will be an important factor at keeping the Dolphins’ pass rush at bay. (FILE:USPresswire)
3) Stevan Ridley needs to keep the ground game moving: Something that’s been really underplayed so far this season has been the play of second year running back Stevan Ridley, who has really been one of the big reasons why Tom Brady has been so successful this season. Ridley has been extremely effective on first and second down and has proven to be a big upgrade over the departed BenJarvus Green-Ellis, averaging a full yard per carry more on both downs. That’s been a big factor in New England’s offensive success and has kept them in manageable yardage situations. The Dolphins’ rush defense is ranked 7th in the league and could make things tough on the Patriots’ ground game, but then again the Denver Broncos’ rush defense was also one of the better units in the league yet Ridley rushed for 151 yards along with a touchdown back in week five. Ridley’s been consistent all year, so it’s hard not to believe he’ll be effective again this weekend.
4) Put the pressure on Tannehill: One thing we’ve seen in recent weeks has been the fact the Patriots have been so incredibly effective blitzing and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich have both been terrific, and Spikes is a guy who has played with reckless abandon in recent weeks to the point where he’s climbed the leaderboard for the Patriots in terms of penalties. The good news is his upside has far outweighed some of the mental mistakes he’s made, and he’s been great both in terms of quarterback pressure and making some big stops against the run. If he and Ninkovich can be disruptive again this weekend, it’s tough to imagine Tannehill not making a couple of mistakes. Considering how many turnovers we’ve seen them force in recent weeks, that could end up being a big problem for the Dolphins. Which leads us to…
5) Keep the turnover momentum going: Last Thursday night against the Jets we saw the Patriots take the ball away from New York five times, increasing their total on the season to 32 takeaways compared to turning it over just eight times. That puts their turnover differential at +24, which is a league best and nearly double to that of the next closest teams, which are the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, who both have a differential of +13. The best way to win a road game is obviously to force mistakes and take the crowd out of the football game, something they clearly did against Rex Ryan’s Jets. If they can do that again Sunday it could quickly turn into a home game as Patriots fans tend to turn out in force in these match-ups in South Florida.
Considering their history down the stretch, fans have to feel a little confident that they’ll be ready to go for this game. Now it’s up to Belichick’s players to go out and execute and take the first step toward wrapping up the Division, as well as hopefully continuing their dominance in the month of December.