A well-timed long winning streak and a few stumbles from field advantage throughout the upcoming AFC playoffs.
The 2011 AFC East champions bring a string of six consecutive victories back to Gillette Stadium for Saturday's clash with a Miami Dolphins team that will have a much different look than when these two division rivals last squared off.
New England's current tear, which was extended with last Sunday's 41-23 road triumph over the previously-rolling Denver Broncos, has clinched the perennial powerhouse's third straight division title and ninth in 11 seasons, and losses by Houston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh this past weekend gave the Patriots a one- game lead on that group for the conference's No. 1 overall seed with just two remaining.
All that stands in the way of New England earning that coveted spot for a second year in a row are home dates with the Dolphins and badly-slumping Buffalo, both of whom are just 5-9 at the moment. The Patriots have prevailed in 22 of their last 23 regular-season contests at Gillette Stadium.
New England has scored 31 points or more in every game of its unbeaten stretch, and its high-powered offense has operating on all cylinders in a 38-24 besting of the Dolphins in Miami in the season opener. The Pats piled up a franchise- record 622 total yards that night, with quarterback Tom Brady finishing with a career-high 517 passing yards and throwing for four touchdowns.
Miami's defense has been far more stingy as of late, however. The Dolphins have yielded a scant 14.7 points and 297.7 total yards in winning five of their seven outings following a dreadful 0-7 start that ultimately triggered the dismissal of head coach Tony Sparano.
"They're obviously playing very well," said Brady of Miami's stop unit. "They got off to a slow start this year but they've really turned things around. They're doing some different things. They're still pretty much the same group of guys in there and it's a very talented group of guys. They can certainly make plays, [have] good corners that can cover, safeties that can cover some ground, athletic linebackers and they can rush the passer."
New England, on the other hand, enters the final stretch with a few clear concerns on that side of the ball. The Patriots have surrendered the most total yards (414.4 ypg) and passing yards (296.7 ypg) in the NFL this season, and will now have to make do without top pass rusher Andre Carter the rest of the way. The veteran end, who leads the team with 10 sacks, suffered a quadriceps injury against the Broncos that will sideline him the remainder of the year.
The Patriots have also permitted 422 rushing yards over their two most recent tilts, including 252 to Denver last week. That could pose problems against a Miami offense that amassed 254 yards on the ground in last week's 30-23 ousting of Buffalo that gave Dolphins interim head coach Todd Bowles a successful debut.
Running back Reggie Bush led the charge with 203 rushing yards on 25 carries, both career bests for the playmaking offseason acquisition. He has eclipsed the century mark in each of Miami's last three games and averaged a sizzling 6.7 yards per attempt over that span.
Miami holds a 49-40 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England, but the Patriots have won seven of the nine meetings between the longtime rivals held since 2007 following their above-mentioned Week 1 result. The Dolphins have also left with a loss in four of their last five trips to Gillette Stadium, which includes a 38-7 blowout defeat in last season's finale, and haven't won in Foxborough since a 38-13 upset in 2008. Miami last topped the Pats during the 2009 campaign, taking a 22-21 squeaker at Sun Life Stadium on a late field goal by kicker Dan Carpenter.
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 win 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 claiming the former (28-13) and New England taking the latter (17-3).
New England's Bill Belichick is 14-11 against Miami in his head coaching career, including a 14-9 mark while with the Patriots. Bowles will be opposing both the Patriots and Belichick for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
While Miami may not possess the firepower as this week's opponent, its offense has turned into a pretty efficient operation thanks to the backfield production of Bush (973 rushing yards, 41 receptions, 6 TD) and a steady hand from quarterback Matt Moore (2081 passing yards, 12 TD, 6 INT). The Dolphins have rushed for over 200 yards in two of their last three games as Bush has flourished in his role as a workhorse, and this past week's performance was proof the former No. 2 overall draft choice hasn't been slowed down by a career-high carry total. Moore, who began the year as a backup to the since- injured Chad Henne, owns an impressive 11-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last seven starts and connected on long scoring strikes to big-play wide receiver Brandon Marshall (70 receptions, 1021 yards, 5 TD) and tight end Anthony Fasano (28 receptions, 5 TD), who's a question mark for Saturday after incurring a mild concussion against the Bills, in last weekend's victory. Marshall also had a big night in Miami's September loss to the Patriots, hauling in seven Henne passes for a season-high 139 yards, with slot receiver Davone Bess (42 receptions, 2 TD) adding 92 yards on five grabs in that game.
New England will have to shore up both its containment and tackling skills in order to avoid a repeat of its past two defensive outcomes, with the Broncos running wild one week after the Pats allowed 170 rushing yards against Washington. Outside linebackers Jerod Mayo (76 tackles, 2 INT) and Rob Ninkovich (65 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT) should be in store for a busy afternoon once again on Saturday, though the expected return of starting safety Patrick Chung (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) from a foot injury that's kept him out the last five games may offer some support to both the run defense and a secondary that could use a stabilizing presence along the back end. Carter's contributions are going to be difficult to replace, though end Mark Anderson (22 tackles) has accumulated nine sacks in situational duty this year and Ninkovich has demonstrated pass-rushing ability as well. Though the Patriots have given up yards in bunches, they do rank among the league leaders in both takeaways (28) and interceptions (18) and forced three turnovers against Denver. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (77 tackles, 7 INT, 12 PD) has been particularly proficient in that area, tying for the NFL lead in picks as the lone bright spot in a secondary that was shredded for 390 net passing yards by Henne in the Week 1 meeting.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
A potent New England offense that was at its most devastating in its opening- week blitz of the Dolphins has had its way with just about other every foe on the schedule this season as well. The Patriots are averaging 31.2 points per game (3rd overall) and stand second overall in both total yards (426.3 ypg) and passing yards (318.6 ypg), with the future Hall of Famer Brady (4593 passing yards, 35 TD, 11 INT) routinely hurling pinpoint passes at a bevy of quality targets. Wide receiver Wes Welker (104 receptions, 1380 yards, 9 TD) is the star quarterback's unquestioned go-to guy and leads the NFL in both catches and receiving yards, and the three-time Pro Bowl honoree torched Miami for 160 yards and two scores -- including a 99-yard hookup -- on eight receptions back in September. The Dolphins also have to deal with the outstanding tight end tandem of second-year pros Rob Gronkowski (75 receptions, 1141 yards, 15 TD) and Aaron Hernandez (68 receptions, 6 TD), with the former atop the league in touchdown catches and the latter coming through with a personal-best nine grabs totaling 129 yards in last week's triumph. Veteran wideout Deion Branch (48 receptions, 4 TD) had 93 yards on seven catches against the Dolphins in Week 1, but may not participate in the rematch due to a groin strain that caused him to miss the Denver game. The colorful Chad Ochocinco (14 receptions, 1 TD), who finally recorded his first touchdown as a Patriot last week, would man Branch's slot if he can't go. Short-yardage standout BenJarvus Green-Ellis (635 rushing yards, 9 TD) heads up a backfield committee that also contains third-down specialist Danny Woodhead (326 rushing yards, 1 TD, 16 receptions) and rookie Stevan Ridley (296 rushing yards, 1 TD) when New England runs the ball.
It would be no surprise if the Patriots plan to attack Miami through the air at length come Saturday, in part due to New England's prolific success in the first matchup but also because of the Dolphins' strength in stopping the run. Coordinator Mike Nolan's crew has held opponents to just 91.6 rushing yards per game (3rd overall) and 3.6 yards per attempt in 2011, with a stout front seven headlined by inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Kevin Burnett (82 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and end Randy Starks (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) yielding 85 yards or less on the ground in six of the last eight games. The team will have to replace outside linebacker Koa Misi, who hurt his shoulder two weeks back and landed on injured reserve Tuesday, though still- capable veteran Jason Taylor (13 tackles, 6 sacks) sees most of the snaps at that spot in passing situations. The 37-year-old has racked up four sacks over the past six games, and he and bookend Cameron Wake (39 tackles, 7.5 sacks) will be asked to apply steady pressure on Brady and help protect a vulnerable secondary that's allowed an average of 247.6 passing yards per game (25th overall). The backfield does sport a high-caliber cover man in cornerback Vontae Davis (39 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT), who came up with a pair of interceptions against the Bills.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How this game starts could have a big say in how it's finished. Miami's objective is to run the ball and control the clock on offense, which is probably the best way to prevent Brady and his cast of weapons from doing the most damage. The Patriots, on the other hand, want to jump out quickly and construct an early lead to force the Dolphins to play catch-up, something that Miami isn't really built to do. In the Dolphins' five wins this season, Moore has attempted 29 passes or less. When he's thrown it 30 or more, the team is 0-3.
For Miami to keep the Patriots' multi-faceted offense in check, it's absolutely essential that it's able to consistently bring the heat upon Brady. The New England triggerman was barely touched in his record-setting display against the Dolphins back in Week 1, and he'll find the open receiver if allowed sufficient time to survey the field. Wake can be a very disruptive force coming off the edge, but he'll need help from Taylor and the linemen to avoid double teams and make a significant impact.
The red zone. It isn't realistic to believe the Dolphins can win this game in a shootout, therefore it's imperative that the team's defense continues its strong recent form. Miami has limited the opposition to 20 points or fewer in seven of its last nine tests and has been very good inside the red zone, having allowed touchdowns on just 40.9 percent of such drives this season. The Dolphins have a real challenge on their hands this week, however, as the Patriots have scored over 30 points in six straight games and are second in the NFL in red-zone offensive efficiency (63.5 percent).
Don't expect a 600-yard outburst from New England this time around, as the Dolphins are far more sound on defense than in the early part of the season and should get more pressure on Brady than the first meeting. Bush wasn't nearly the factor he is now at that time as well, nor was Moore even the team's regular quarterback. Still, the Dolphins have to travel to Foxborough, where the Patriots have been nearly invincible over the last three seasons, and New England's going to get its points with the way the offense has been humming lately. That's likely to cause Miami to deviate from its desired game plan and take to the air more than preferred, which could lead to one or two costly mistakes that may turn a relatively tight game into a comfortable win for the AFC East champs.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 30, Dolphins 13