Pats Preview: Can the New England Patriots keep slim playoff hopes alive

The New England Patriots will take on the Miami Dolphins this weekend in a matchup that will have massive playoff implications one way or another. In last night’s Thursday night thriller, the Patriots got some help from the Los Angeles Chargers, which could lead to the Patriots moving past the Las Vegas Raiders in the playoff hunt. The stakes have been raised a little bit for the Patriots, while they were already sky high for the Dolphins. One team’s playoff hopes will take a serious hit as a result of this game.

While the Dolphins hold onto the #7 seed as is, a loss to the Patriots probably knocks them out of contention for that spot. If the Patriots lose this one, their small playoff hopes are officially gone. The Patriots can play like a team that has nothing to lose, while the Dolphins on the other hand happen to have a playoff spot on the line with each of their next three games. These circumstances will probably not impact the outcome of the game, but is an interesting point to keep in mind when watching the game.

In Week 1 this season, the new look Patriots cruised to a 21-11 win over the Dolphins. At the time, it felt like the same old story was going to go down in the AFC East, with the Patriots easily taking down their less competitive foes. Since then, the story has changed quite a bit. These two teams are not the same as the ones that met in the opening week. The Dolphins have experienced a renaissance of sorts under head coach Brian Flores, while the Patriots have experienced quite a regression after looking like an offensive machine in the first three weeks of the season.

Flores has created one of the best defensive units in the league. Led by Xavien Howard, who leads the league with nine interceptions, and featuring old friends Kyle Van Noy, Eric Rowe, and Elandon Roberts, this defense have taken over games at times, and helped make new quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s transition much easier. This defense will most certainly cause problems for an already lacking offense.

While the Dolphins defense will allow offenses to rack up yards, they rely on big plays to make sure they don’t score. They’ve forced 25 turnovers, which is tied for best in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Emmanuel Ogbah, Kyle Van Noy, and Jerome Baker each have 5+ plus sacks, with Ogbah leading the pack at 8. And this unit has the best third down percentage in the league, allowing opponents to convert only 33% of the time.

With this in mind, it is going to be difficult for the Patriots to consistently move the ball against this unit. If they can set up third and short situations, while not committing any turnovers, they can find success offensively. First and second downs are going to of the utmost importance, because third and long situations are going to be very difficult to convert. Third and shorts keep the defense on it’s toes because they will have to expect both a run and a pass play to happen, which will open up the playbook for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

On the other side of the ball, the defense will tasked with shutting down rookie Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami offense. Bill Belichick has done a masterful job at shutting down young quarterbacks throughout his career, and should be able to come up with a plan to do the same to Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa is a more dangerous player than Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started the previous Week 1 matchup, but lacks the experience of his veteran counterpart. Belichick will probably throw some blitzes or coverages that the young quarterback has never seen, and it will be telling to see how he responds to them. If he forces the issue, the defense will make him pay.

Miami’s two biggest targets in the passing game are Devonte Parker and Mike Gesicki. Parker notoriously had a huge game against Stephon Gilmore in last year’s Week 17 matchup, and will probably be targeted a bunch in this weekend’s game. Gesicki has emerged as quite the red zone threat for this passing attack, as he leads the receiving corps with six touchdowns. Gilmore will probably be attached to Parker’s hip for most of the game, and Gesicki will see a number of Patriots defensive backs throughout the game, including Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger. If the secondary can do a good job keeping them under wraps, Tagovailoa will have to find another way to win.

The big picture view remains consistent to what this team has looked for all year. Take away the biggest threats on defense, and protect the ball on offense. If they can do that, they will be able to make this a game and give themselves a shot to win it. If not, it could turn into a similar game as the one we saw last week versus the Los Angeles Rams. This is the last shot for the Patriots to salvage their season, and they need to play like it.

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