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10 things you have to know about Patriots-Dolphins

12.29.12 at 12:05 pm ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Patriots-Dolphins game.

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Linebacker Brandon Spikes against running back Reggie Bush
If Spikes plays — more on that possibility later — this is going to be one of the better matchups of the day. When he’€™s healthy, the linebacker continues to play with the sort of edge that makes running backs nervous. He and Vince Wilfork are the primary reasons why the Patriots are tied for seventh in the league in yards allowed per carry (4.0) and 12th in the league in average yards allowed per game (105.5). Meanwhile, the last time these two teams met, Bush averaged 4.27 yards per carry, but had only 64 yards on 15 carries as Miami was forced to throw for much of the second half. The Dolphins did a pretty consistent job running the football over the first three-quarters of the season as a team, but they’€™ve done very well particularly over the last couple of games, running the ball for over 180 yards in games against the Jaguars and Bills. If that continues this week, Bush will be a big reason why.

2. Running back Stevan Ridley against the Miami run defense –
The Dolphins did an excellent job bottling up Ridley and the rest of the New England running game for the first three-plus quarters on Dec. 2, but with the contest on the line, the Patriots powered over the Dolphins. New England used a terrific 16-play, 77-yard drive to finish off the game, a series that was led by Ridley, who accounted for 10 carries on 46 yards on a sequence that consumed 7:18 (the second-longest of the year for the Patriots) and was the finest offensive drive of the year for New England. Miami remains stout against the run (10th in the league in average yards allowed at 104.5 and tied for seventh in the league in yards per carry allowed with 4.0), and they no doubt remember being ‘€œdisrespected’€ by the Patriots running game late in that contest.

(For what it’€™s worth, Ridley also is within striking distance of a few marks. He has 10 rushing touchdowns — Curtis Martin has the team record with 14. Ridley also is at 270 carries. If he hits 300, he’€™d be the first Patriots running back to hit the mark since Corey Dillon in 2004. And, according to Nuggetpalooza, the Patriots have scored at least one rushing touchdown in each of their last eight games against the Dolphins.)

3. The New England offensive line against the Miami pass rush – Pass protection has been a major issue for the Patriots over the last few weeks. Tom Brady was sacked just three times from Week 6 to Week 12, but he’€™s taken 11 sacks from Week 13 through Week 16. Despite the fact that Miami doesn’€™t have much to play for, the Dolphins remain one of the best teams in the league when it comes to getting after the quarterback — in fact, Miami’€™s pass rush is just as good as any in the league. The Dolphins sacked Brady four times on Dec. 2 (tying a season worst for New England) and are sixth in the NFL through 15 games with 41 sacks.

4. Under-the-radar opponent Patriots fans need to know – In our preview of the first game between these two teams, we highlighted the work that Davone Bess has done against New England. Bess had terrific career numbers against the Patriots coming into the game: In eight career games against New England, he had 41 catches on 71 targets for 526 yards and four touchdowns. So what happens? Kyle Arrington holds him to one catch (on six targets) for 13 yards. This time, we’€™ll switch gears and go after another receiver: Brian Hartline. We’€™re not sure how under-the-radar he is, but we can feel safe in calling him the least heralded 1,000-yard receiver in the league this season. The first time around against New England, he caught five passes on 10 targets for 94 yards. If the Patriots are without Aqib Talib and/or Alfonzo Dennard, he could match those numbers again Sunday against New England.

5. By the numbers (tie, both courtesy of Nuggetpalooza) — 1. The Patriots are 445 total yards away from their club record of 6,848, set last year. Their current total of 6,403 is their third-best mark for a season. Only five teams since 1970 (including last season’€™s Patriots) have accumulated 6,800 or more total yards in a season. The record is 7,474, by the 2011 Saints. 2. New England already has 2,017 rushing yards this season, their third highest total since 1988. If they can manage 118 or more yards on the ground this Sunday, they’€™ll pass the 2004 team for their second most since 1988. Their team record is 3,165 rushing yards, by the 1978 squad.

6. Quote from the Dolphins regarding this Sunday – ‘€œI believe we will have four or five different starters than the time we had on Dec. 2, so it’€™s just part of the process.’€ — Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, talking about the changes in his team since the first meeting between the Patriots and Miami

7. Patriots fans should be worried about … Miami’€™s ability to get pressure on the quarterback. As previously stated, the Dolphins will provide a stern test for the New England offensive line heading into the postseason. While the interior of the Patriots’€™ o-line has struggled, the real story here will be on the outside, particularly the matchup between right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and edge rusher Cameron Wake. The first time these two teams met, Vollmer had one of the worst games of an otherwise impressive season, yielding a pair of sacks and looking slow off the ball.

8. Dolphins fans should be worried about ‘€¦ the Patriots jumping to an early lead. The last two weeks, New England has been outscored 30-16 in the first half, and has been put on the ropes by both the Niners and Jaguars. It’€™s a point of emphasis every week, but the Patriots are at their best playing from ahead for several reasons. This week, those reasons include the fact that it might allow them to rest some starters in the second half.

9. One more thing – You can’€™t game-plan for this contest in a vacuum — there are so many possibilities in play this week and so many variables, it’€™s hard to figure out what the Patriots are going to do. If they play it straight up, there’€™s the likelihood that New England keeps its foot on the gas and plays the starters for most, if not all, of the contest. But what do you do with the veterans who are a little banged up and could use a week or rest before the postseason, like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Spikes, Talib and Logan Mankins? And what if you end up needing one of them because the Colts beat the Texans at 1 and want to do whatever it takes to beat a pesky Miami team?

10. Prediction –

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