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NFL Preview - New England (7-4) at Miami (5-6)



By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - A few weeks back, the powers that be within the NFL and the television networks removed this week's matchup between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots from its original Sunday night time slot, placing the Cardinals/Vikings game in its place in a "flex scheduling" maneuver.

The move turned out to be a prudent one, since both the Dolphins and Patriots proved last week that they were not ready for primetime.

Miami, which cruised into Buffalo last week as a favorite that had carved out a place in the AFC playoff race during an impressive stretch of 5-2 football, needed a victory over the injury-riddled Bills to maintain a realistic chance of challenging New England for the AFC East title.

But Tony Sparano's team was stunned, 31-14, falling apart during a fourth- quarter in which it was outscored, 24-0, and subsequently dropped back under .500 for the year.

Quarterback Chad Henne (17-of-35, 173 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT) and running back Ricky Williams accounted for four interceptions that allowed the Bills to hang around long enough to win the game. Williams (27 carries, 115 yards, 1 TD) had a decent day, but didn't break any big runs against a Bills team that has given up a large number of them in 2009.

Meanwhile, a Miami defense that might have been expected to dominate a Buffalo offense comprised of backups almost across the board, instead allowed the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick (17-of-26, 246 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), Terrell Owens (five receptions, 96 yards, 1 TD) and Fred Jackson (20 total touches, 116 yards, 2 TD) to post big days for interim head coach Perry Fewell's squad.

As if what happened on Sunday wasn't bad enough, the Patriots' performance on Monday twisted the knife for a Miami team that could have entered this week's home game with a chance to pull even in the division.

New England was manhandled by the Saints, 38-17, outplayed in every aspect of the game by a superior club that looked much closer to its first Super Bowl appearance than New England does to its seventh.

The Pats generally had no clue against Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who carved them up for 371 yards on 18-of-23 passing with five touchdown strikes. Brees burned the Patriots with a number of big plays down the field, including a 75-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson on a blown coverage in the second quarter, a 38-yard strike to Robert Meachem later in the frame, as well as a 68-yard play to Marques Colston.

Offensively, for one of the few times in his career, Tom Brady was the lesser of the two quarterbacks on the field. With wideouts Randy Moss (3 receptions, 67 yards) and Wes Welker (6 receptions, 32 yards) bottled up for much of the night, Brady was 21-of-36 for 237 yards with two interceptions, the first time in more than three years he had thrown multiple picks without a touchdown pass.

Brady was pulled late in the game in favor of rookie Brian Hoyer.

SERIES HISTORY

Miami holds a 48-37 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England, but was a 27-17 road loser when the teams met in Week 9. The clubs embarked on an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home, with the Dolphins earning a shocking 38-13 road victory at the Patriots in Week 3 of last season before being dealt a 48-28 setback in the return matchup in South Florida during Week 12. The Pats swept the 2007 home-and-home with their longtime AFC East rival, and are 2-0 in Miami since last losing there in 2006.

In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met three times in the postseason, with New England holding a 2-1 advantage there. The Patriots' most memorable postseason victory over Miami came in the 1985 AFC Championship, when New England escaped with a 31-14 triumph en route to its first-ever Super Bowl appearance. The clubs also met in AFC First-Round Playoff matchups in 1982 and 1997, with Miami winning the former (28-13) and New England taking the latter (17-3).

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 11-10 against Miami in his head coaching career, including 11-8 while with New England. Sparano - a native of West Haven, CT - is 1-2 versus both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

After posting their lowest point total in six weeks and committing a season- high three turnovers in New Orleans, Brady (3286 passing yards, 20 TD, 8 INT) and the Patriots offense - which still ranks second in the league (411.5 yards per game) - will try to get back on track Sunday. Brady threw for 332 yards against the Dolphins back in Week 9, completing 15 balls for 231 yards to Moss and Welker in that game, an indication that the attack should be able to get well here. Moss (66 receptions, 8 TD) is the NFL leader in receiving yards (992) as Week 13 begins, and is eight yards shy of becoming just the second player in NFL history to post ten 1,000-yard seasons (Jerry Rice). Welker (85 receptions, 4 TD) paces the NFL in receptions and needs 114 yards to go over 1,000 for the third straight campaign. Third wideout Sam Aiken (16 receptions, 1 TD) comes off a season-best seven-catch, 90-yard performance and will look to continue his contributions. In the running game, Laurence Maroney (519 rushing yards, 8 TD) has scored a touchdown in six consecutive games, including two in New Orleans, but has also been dealing with fumbling problems. The Patriots line has allowed a modest 16 sacks on the year.

After struggling against the Bills passing attack late in their Week 12 loss, a hot-and-cold Miami secondary figures to have its hands full with the New England aerial assault as well. Despite ranking near the top of the NFL with 35 sacks, including a combined 19 from the trio of outside linebackers Jason Taylor (28 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) and Joey Porter (25 tackles, 7 sacks) along with end Randy Starks (38 tackles, 6 sacks), the Fins are 23rd in the league in passing yards allowed (233 yards per game), a clear indictment of the team's secondary. Rookie cornerbacks Vontae Davis (35 tackles, 2 INT) and Sean Smith (31 tackles) will need a lot of help from a safety group led by Yeremiah Bell (84 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT) and Gibril Wilson (70 tackles, 1 sack). Bell and Wilson combined for 19 tackles against the Bills last week, and Bell notched his first interception since 2005 in the contest. Miami has been better against the run this year, ranking a respectable 12th in that category (108.0 yards per game), though a season-ending injury suffered by nose tackle Jason Ferguson in Week 11 has hampered the club's dominance a bit in that regard. Fill-in NT Paul Soliai (12 tackles) had just one tackle against the Bills last week, as Starks led the trench unit with five stops. Inside linebackers Akin Ayodele (47 tackles) and Channing Crowder (42 tackles, 1 sack) have been serviceable this season, though neither has made a great number of big plays.

WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL

Clearly, Miami's main directive on Sunday will be to establish Ricky Williams (792 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 11 TD) and a rushing attack that ranks third in the league with 156.1 yards per game and has not dropped off appreciably since Ronnie Brown was lost for the season due to injury. Williams has gone over 100 yards in three consecutive games. Fullback Lousaka Polite (85 rushing yards, 5 receptions) and Lex Hilliard (46 rushing yards, 4 receptions) have offered a change of pace, combining for eight carries, 44 yards and four receptions in Buffalo. But New England will likely challenge the still- developing Henne (1512 passing yards, 7 TD, 7 INT) to throw the ball down the field to one of the league's least explosive receiving groups. Brian Hartline's (17 receptions, 2 TD) touchdown catch in Buffalo was just the third touchdown pass for a Miami wide receiver this season, as Devone Bess (49 receptions) and Ted Ginn, Jr. (25 receptions, 1 TD) combined for just five grabs and failed to make much of an impact. Tight end Anthony Fasano (19 receptions, 1 TD) was high-man for the Fins with five catches for 74 yards in the loss. Henne was sacked just once last week, and the Miami o-line has surrendered 24 sacks on the year.

New England has been an average run-stopping team this season, ranking 16th in NFL rushing defense (109.7 yards per game) and 23rd in yards allowed per carry (4.4) while adjusting to life without end Richard Seymour. The Pats allowed 133 ground yards against the Dolphins in Week 9. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork (36 tackles) and end Ty Warren (39 tackles, 1 sack) will look to be active in pursuit of Williams at the point of attack on Sunday, with linebackers Jerod Mayo (52 tackles, 1 sack) and Gary Guyton (63 tackles) part of the cleanup crew behind them. After being torched by Brees and the New Orleans passing attack on Monday night, the Patriots secondary will be pleased to see Miami's far less frightening aerial attack. Cornerbacks Leigh Bodden (39 tackles, 5 INT) and Jonathan Wilhite (27 tackles, 1 INT) will be among those attempting to bounce back, with safeties Brandon Meriweather (57 tackles, 3 INT) and Brandon McGowan (67 tackles) helping them over the top. New England has been an inconsistent pass-rushing team this year, with outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (37 tackles, 5 sacks) leading the way in sacks for a club that has just 19 on the year. Fellow OLB Adalius Thomas (26 tackles, 3 sacks) had the club's lone sack of Brees on Monday night.

FANTASY FOCUS

Even after subpar fantasy nights for Brady, Moss, and Welker, you shouldn't hesitate in starting any of the above, especially given what that trio did in its last outing against Miami. Maroney also remains a good play, since he continued to garner a majority of the carries and found the end zone twice last week despite Sammy Morris' return from injury. Aiken will be a popular waiver- wire pickup this week but is unlikely to duplicate his Monday night production again this year. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski remains a solid play, but the New England defense makes too few big plays to warrant a start.

On the Miami side, Williams should be a credit to the fantasy cause, and Fasano is worthy of consideration after the tight end posted his best game in weeks, but no other Dolphins can be considered terrific plays.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

It was just two weeks ago that the Patriots, coming off a much-publicized primetime loss to the Colts, punished the New York Jets for the frustration and negative publicity that the loss in Indianapolis had borne. Though the circumstances are a bit different this time, since New England was soundly beaten by the Saints, the Patriots' mentality should be the same as it was when the Jets came calling. New England will come out desperate to assert its place among the AFC elite, and to prove that the New Orleans loss was an aberration against an opponent that the Pats simply matched up with poorly. The Dolphins aren't a bad club, but their loss in Buffalo last week proved that there's a formula for even the league's worst teams to beat them, and New England will provide the knockout punch to Miami's postseason hopes with a road win on Sunday.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 26, Dolphins 17

12/03 12:06:40 ET