The Miami Dolphins (8-5) enter Week 15 with a pivotal matchup with the New England Patriots (6-7). The Dolphins currently hold the final playoff spot in the AFC and may need to win their final three games this season to get into the postseason.
The game stands a rematch of the Week 1 contest between these division rivals. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 21-11 in the season opener and that stands as Miami’s worst loss of the season. But in Week 15, the Dolphins are a different team.
Here’s a look at five keys to the Dolphins-Patriots matchup in Week 15.
Dolphins-Patriots: Keep Up the Solid Run Defense
The Dolphins sport one of the top defensive units in the NFL, but if there’s a clear weakness with that group, it’s the run defense. Miami allows 120.2 rushing yards-per-game (22nd) and 4.6 yards-per-carry (25th). In Week 14 against the Chiefs, though, the run D played well.
Kansas City managed just 94 yards on 24 rushes, good for 3.9 yards-per-carry. The Dolphins limited explosive rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire to 32 yards on 16 carries (2.0 yards-per-carry) and 12 of those came on one run.
Miami will need a similar performance in Week 15 against the Patriots, a team that ran all over them in the season opener. In Week 1, New England carried the ball 42 times for 217 yards and three touchdowns, good for a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. Those numbers are similar to the 189 yards and 5.7 YPC average put up by the Broncos in Week 11.
But the Dolphins run defense has improved since those losses. They haven’t allowed a team to rush over 100 yards or get over 4.0 yards-per-carry over the last three weeks.
Put Up Points Early
The strength of the Patriots offense is the ground game. New England leads the league in rushing attempts, and they use that attack to control the pace of play. In Week 1, New England hogged the ball, and the Dolphins only had four second half possessions. But the Patriots have a limited passing attack, coming in at 29th in passing (185.4 yards-per-game) and have thrown a total of eight touchdown passes in 2020.
If the Dolphins can get an early lead, it may force New England to abandon their strength to get back into the game. Cam Newton, who was benched in Week 14 after a horrible showing against the Rams, has thrown just five touchdowns this season. He’s thrown twice as many interceptions.
The Dolphins lead the league in first quarter scoring (7.5 points-per-game) and are seventh in first half scoring (15.5). The Patriots, meanwhile, are last in scoring in the first quarter (2.2) and 27th in first half scoring (9.2). And early lead could lead to Miami’s defense turning up the heat on Cam.
Dolphins-Patriots: Limit Newton’s Legs
As stated earlier, the Patriots lead the league in rushing attempts. Damien Harris paces the team with 137 attempts, good for 691 yards and two touchdowns. But second on the team in carries is Newton. His 113 attempts are third-most among quarterbacks.
In Week 1, the Dolphins allowed Newton 75 yards on 15 carries. He scored two rushing touchdowns. On the season, Newton’s piled up 451 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Miami has historically struggled against mobile quarterbacks like Newton and Arizona’s Kyler Murray. If the Dolphins are to win this game and keep their playoff hopes alive, they’ll need to keep Newton in the pocket.
Miami’s defense must find a way to limit positive gains on first down, forcing the Patriots into second- and third-and-long situations. Miami sports the top third-down defense in the league, allowing opponents to convert just 33.1 percent of the time on third-down. The long down-and-distance will allow the Dolphins to attack Newton. The Patriots surrender 2.2 sacks-per-game (Miami gets 2.6 per). And in Week 14, New England allowed four sacks in their loss to. The Rams.
Snag More Takeaways
This one goes without saying, but we’ll say it here anyway. The Dolphins are tied with Pittsburgh for the most takeaways this season (25). Miami’s streak of at least one takeaway in 19 consecutive games is the longest in the NFL.
And the Dolphins defense was particularly impressive last week, despite the loss to Kansas City. They intercepted Patrick Mahomes three times and forced a fumble. Mahomes had entered the Week 14 contest with just two interceptions all season.
Newton’s 10 interceptions this season are eighth-most in the league. The Patriots 14 total interceptions thrown are fourth-most. New England has lost four fumbles this season, so their 18 total turnovers are middle-of-the-pack. But in their seven losses this season, the Patriots are minus-six in turnover differential.
Xavien Howard will look to extend his personal interception streak to sixth game and push his league lead in the INT department. The Patriots throw 1.1 interceptions-per-game (fourth-most), so he’ll have his opportunities. If Howard snags his 10th INT, it will match the single-season franchise record.
The Dolphins defense has feasted on turnovers this year. They’ve returned a pair of fumbles for touchdowns and consistently set up their offense with a short field. Doing that would certainly help their rookie quarterback.
Dolphins-Patriots: Get Tagovailoa Settled In
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a long history of dominating rookie quarterbacks. And Week 15’s matchup marks the first time Tua Tagovailoa will face a Belichick defense. Belichick sports a 5-20 record against rookie QBs and most recently put the clamps on Chargers rookie Justin Herbert.
Working in Miami’s favor is the fact that it’s a home game. All five of Belichick’s losses to rookie QBs have come on the road.
Tagovailoa has settled into the offense well over the last several weeks. He’s demonstrated positive chemistry with Mike Gesicki, who could play despite a shoulder injury, DeVante Parker and Lynn Bowden Jr. Tagovailoa spreads the ball around in the passing game and has taken well to the up-tempo, no-huddle attack.
Tagovailoa may need to focus on the short passing game to simulate what would come on the ground. But he’s been good in that range thus far, connecting on 76-of-95 passes for 617 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions on throws under 10 yards through the air.
New England tends to flood the field with defensive backs and doesn’t blitz at an alarming rate (just 24 percent of the time, ninth-lowest). Tagovailoa will need to be patient and take with the Patriots give him.