Published September 12, 2011
| Sports Network
Sparano had been considered all but a goner following Miami's 38-7 dismantling at the hands of the New England Patriots, who'll be invading Sun Life Stadium on Monday night for a season-opening showdown with the Dolphins, in the 2010 regular-season finale, and his thin-ice status was confirmed when owner Stephen Ross courted then-Stanford sideline boss Jim Harbaugh in January. Those overtures were spurned, however, leaving Ross in a compromising situation he attempted to deflect by extending Sparano's contract by two years in the aftermath of the mess.
Despite that public show of commitment, Sparano still may be entering the 2011 campaign on the hot seat after the Dolphins dropped their final three games of last season to register a 7-9 record and a third-place finish in the AFC East for a second straight year.
Miami also spent some time attempting to get rid of Henne, who's inconsistent play under center was one of the culprits to Miami's disappointing season. The team engaged in trade talks for Denver's Kyle Orton that ultimately fell through by the start of training camp, a clear sign that the fourth-year signal-caller's on shaky ground with the front office as well.
The Patriots also closed out their 2010 season in a bitter and unwanted fashion, falling to the rival New York Jets at home by a 28-21 score in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. That sudden exit spoiled an otherwise marvelous performance by the defending AFC East champs, who compiled an NFL-best 14-2 record prior to that setback and saw star quarterback Tom Brady become the first unanimous winner of the league's Most Valuable Player award.
The loss to the Jets was New England's third in a row in the postseason, a slide dating back to the team's upset defeat in Super Bowl XLII during February of 2008, and second straight early departure, having also been ousted at home by Baltimore in the 2009 AFC Wild Card Round.
Miami's had its share of problems protecting the home turf as well. The Dolphins won just a single time in eight outings at Sun Life Stadium last year, which included an embarrassing 41-14 shellacking by the Patriots in front of a nationally-televised Monday night audience in October.
That game was one of nine in which the 2010 Dolphins scored 15 points or fewer, and the team prioritized adding some playmakers to its lackluster offense during its turbulent offseason. Though Miami struck out on Orton, it was able to land Reggie Bush in a trade with New Orleans, and intends to incorporate the dynamic running back heavily in the game plan for the upcoming year.
New England brought in a couple of big names from the trade market over the summer as well, with six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Ochocinco joining the league's highest-scoring offense and talented but troublesome defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth becoming part of a revamped group on that side of the ball.
The Patriots will be aiming for an eighth straight season-opening victory on Monday. The club's seven-game run in lid-lifters is one behind Pittsburgh for the longest current streak in the NFL.
Miami holds a 49-39 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England, but the Patriots have won six of the eight meetings between the longtime rivals held since 2007. New England has gone 3-1 at Sun Life Stadium during that stretch, with its lone defeat a 22-21 setback on a late field goal by the Dolphins' Dan Carpenter in 2009. As previously stated, the Pats took both 2010 matchups with Miami in lopsided fashion.
In addition to the regular-season set, these 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 came through with a 31-14 road 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).
New England's Bill Belichick is 13-11 against Miami in his head coaching career, including a 13-9 mark while with the Patriots. Sparano is 2-4 versus both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England's powerful offense put up 31 points or more 11 times over the course of its stellar 2010 regular season, and it's scary to think the attack could conceivably be even better with the colorful Ochocinco (67 receptions, 4 TD with Bengals) now in the fold, steady wideout Deion Branch (61 receptions, 6 TD) around for a full year and young tight ends Rob Gronkowski (42 receptions, 10 TD) and Aaron Hernandez (45 receptions, 6 TD) now having experience under their belts after combining for 16 touchdowns and 1,100 yards as rookies. Of course, it all starts with Brady (3900 passing yards, 36 TD), who was virtually flawless in taking home his second career MVP hardware last year. The future Hall of Famer completed a crisp 65.9 percent of his throws and was intercepted a mere four times prior to the playoffs, and enters Monday's tilt carrying an NFL-record streak of 335 pass attempts without being picked off in regular- season play. His favorite target, Wes Welker (86 receptions, 7 TD), is also back and will be in search of a fourth season in the last five years with over 100 catches and 1,000 yards. The Pats' prolific aerial assault is complemented nicely by a solid running game featuring the inside-outside duo of power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1008 rushing yards, 13 TD) and the shifty Danny Woodhead (547 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 6 total TD), who's yet another quality pass- catching option for Brady. The offensive line will likely have one change in store for the opener, with 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder projected to start for ailing right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back).
While Miami's offense sputtered way too often during last year's letdown, the defense was consistently good all throughout 2010, with the exception of the 502 yards the group gave up to the Pats in the finale. The Dolphins still finished the season ranked sixth in yards allowed (309.3 ypg) and seventh versus the run, and return 10 of 11 starters from that outfit. The headliner is outside linebacker Cameron Wake (57 tackles), a former CFL star who came out of nowhere to tie for third in the league with 14 sacks and earn All-Pro honors, while massive nose tackle Paul Soliai (39 tackles, 2 sacks) and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (95 tackles, 3 sacks) key the team's run-stopping efforts with assistance from rugged strong safety and leading tackler Yeremiah Bell (101 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT). Dansby will be flanked this year by veteran Kevin Burnett (95 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 INT), an astute free-agent pickup from the Chargers who's the lone newcomer to the corps. The secondary sports three capable cornerbacks in 2009 draft selections Vontae Davis (54 tackles, 1 INT, 12 PD) and Sean Smith (51 tackles, 1 INT) as well as nickel defender Benny Sapp (41 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD), though the trio faces a tough task in trying to slow down New England's array of weapons.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami's chances for an upset will hinge on how Henne (3301 passing yards, 15 TD) performs, especially if the game develops into a shootout. With a strong and accurate arm and good leadership skills, the 26-year-old has the tools to succeed, but will need to cut down his 19-interception total from last year in order for he and his team to take the next step. The Dolphins do have the makings of a dangerous passing game, as top receiver Brandon Marshall (86 receptions, 1014 yards, 3 TD) has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past four years and both counterpart Brian Hartline (43 receptions, 1 TD) and slotman Davone Bess (79 receptions, 5 TD) have developed into proven commodities. Bush (150 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 1 TD) should help in that area as well, as he's averaged nearly 60 catches over his five seasons in the league and brings a big-play element that the offense was missing last season. The ex-Saint will also get an opportunity to serve as a feature back in his new surroundings, with 228-pound rookie Daniel Thomas slated to be the thunder to Bush's lightning in Miami's revised backfield look. The 2011 second-round pick's debut could be delayed, however, after he strained a hamstring in practice during the week, prompting the Dolphins to sign declining veteran Larry Johnson as insurance on Thursday. All-Pro left tackle Jake Long heads up an offensive line that will have two new faces this year, with rookie first- rounder Mike Pouncey taking over at center and former Cowboy Marc Colombo signed to step in at right tackle.
The Patriots' defense was a mixture of good and bad last season, having permitted the third-most passing yards (258.5 ypg) in the NFL but leading the league with 25 interceptions, seven of which were snared by 2010 rookie standout Devin McCourty (82 tackles, 1 sack, 17 PD) from his cornerback spot. He'll be joined in this year's secondary by sound veteran Leigh Bodden, back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for all of 2010, while former special-teamer Sergio Brown (11 tackles) takes over as the new strong safety following the surprising release of two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather at final cuts. After struggling to adequately pressure the quarterback at times last season, New England added a few players with track records in that department during the offseason. The most notable is Haynesworth (16 tackles, 2.5 sacks), twice an All-Pro during his days in Tennessee before delivering two uninspiring years and clashing with the coaching staff as a free-agent flop in Washington. Another Redskins castoff, end Andre Carter (44 tackles, 2.5 sacks), is just two years removed from an 11-sack campaign, while fellow newcomer Mark Anderson (29 tackles, 4 sacks with Texans/Bears) compiled 12 quarterback takedowns as a rookie with Chicago in 2006. A run defense that ranked 11th overall (108.0 ypg) is headed up by a pair of Pro Bowl participants in nose tackle Vince Wilfork (57 tackles, 2 sacks) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (175 tackles, 2 sacks).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The turnover battle. New England had a league-best plus-28 ratio of takeaways to giveaways last season, while Miami was third-worst in the NFL with a minus-12 in that aspect. Fifteen of Henne's 19 interceptions last year came in Dolphins' losses, so he'll need to be careful with the football in order to match the usually error-free Brady.
Pressuring the quarterback. The Jets uncovered the formula to slow down New England's potent offense in last January's playoffs, playing sound coverage and throwing Brady's timing off with multiple looks and applying the heat from all angles. The Dolphins will try to do the same, and will need to be effective to have a chance. On the other side, the Patriots' secondary can be vulnerable if the pass rush isn't working. And if it is, Henne has shown he can be mistake- prone in the past under heavy duress.
Controlling the clock. The best way to prevent New England from lighting up the scoreboard is by keeping Brady off the field, and the Dolphins aren't equipped to keep pace with the Pats if this contest turns into a track meet. If Miami can establish an efficient running game, that will serve a dual purpose of easing the burden on Henne and taking the ball out of Brady's hands.
New England has both a talent and psychological edge on the Dolphins, the latter coming from its two blowout wins over its AFC East rival last season, as well as an obvious advantage at the quarterback position. Miami's defense is good enough to keep the Patriots from hitting their usual scoring pace, but stopping Brady and his abundance of playmakers altogether is another matter. The Dolphins are still in the process of establishing an identity on offense, and attempting to match the performance of one of the NFL's best at such an early stage of the season doesn't appear to be particularly likely.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17