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Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Dolphins

12.14.13 at 12:24 am ET
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Shane Vereen set team records with 12 receptions for 153 yards in the Patriots' comeback win over the Browns. (AP)

Shane Vereen set team records with 12 receptions for 153 yards in the Patriots’ comeback win over the Browns. (AP)

Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game:

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Running back Shane Vereen against the Miami defense:
With Rob Gronkowski now out for the rest of the season, Vereen is New England’s most dynamic offensive option, a multidimensional threat who can be a handful for opposing defenses to contain. Vereen, who averages 7.2 yards every time he touches the ball this season, is a threat on the ground, but can do some serious damage through the air. Last week against the Browns, he had 12 catches for 153 yards (franchise marks for a running back) and a touchdown.

2. The Patriots offensive line against the Dolphins defensive front:
The New England offensive line has struggled at times over the last month-plus as Tom Brady has been knocked around pretty good. Despite a repeated emphasis on getting the ball out as fast as possible — which will almost certainly be a priority this week for several reasons against some very good pass rushers — the New England front will be asked to keep Brady clean in a the face of an very good group of pass rushers. Keep an eye on the edges, as Patriots left tackle Nate Solder missed one day of practice with a concussion he suffered against the Browns, while Marcus Cannon and Will Svitek has combined to hold down the right side with Sebastian Vollmer on injured reserve. Olivier Vernon (11.5 sacks) Randy Starks (3 sacks), Jared Odrick (4.5 sacks), Paul Soliai (2 sacks) and Cameron Wake (7.5 sacks) are all impressive in their own right, both against the run and the pass, and will provide the Patriots with another stern test.

3. Defensive end Chandler Jones against left tackle Bryant McKinnie:
Jones was on a streak of five sacks in six games entering the Dec. 1 contest against the Texans — since then, he’s been held sackless. The New England defensive end was stymied by McKinnie when these two teams met in Week 8, just eight days after McKinnie was acquired by the Dolphins in a trade. With the New England defensive front struggling the last few weeks, a jolt from Jones on the outside would go a long way toward shaking up the Miami offense.

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: Charles Clay.
“The Claymaker” has become an absolutely vital piece of the Miami offense. The Tulsa product — who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds — caught 34 passes in his first two seasons with the Dolphins, but has really clicked with quarterback Ryan Tannehill this year, hauling in 60 passes for 678 yards and six touchdowns. He’s not just a pass catcher, but Bill Belichick went out of his way to praise his work as a blocker who has been able to nullify some pretty good defensive ends over the course of the year, including Carolina’s Charles Johnson. Considering that the Patriots have struggled at times when it comes to containing relatively anonymous tight ends (Jordan Cameron had nine catches for 121 yards and a touchdown last Sunday), New England needs to make containing Clay a priority.

5. By the numbers:
Per Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, the Patriots have four wins after trailing by nine-plus points in the second half since Week 8. By way of comparison, the Packers have one (Sunday) since 2005.

6. Quote of note: “We’ve played a lot more of this season without him than with him.” — Belichick on the loss of Gronkowski.

7. Patriots fans should be worried about…..
two things: If the Dolphins pass rush finds a way to get to Brady consistently, and if Miami is able to run the ball consistently. We already covered the strengths of the Miami front seven, but it’s also worth mentioning that the Dolphins have also shown an ability to pick up good yards on the ground. Last week against the Steelers, Miami rushed for 181 yards as a team, and over six of its last eight games, have rushed for 100-plus yards. When it comes to the Dolphins, there are some injury questions — Lamar Miller suffered a concussion against Pittsburgh, while Daniel Thomas has been dealing with an ankle injury — but if they find a way to control the tempo early and crank it up on the ground, Miami could be tough to beat.

8. Dolphins fans should be worried about…. Brady being Brady.
The New England quarterback, who has a personal seven-game win streak against the Dolphins, is on the sort of regular-season run that has injected him into the heart of the MVP race. Over his last five games — four of them wins for the Patriots — he’s gone 147-for-216 (68 percent) for 1,861 yards, with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. The quarterback certainly wasn’t at his best when these two teams met the first time around — in one of his low points, he converted less than 60 percent of his passes, threw for a season-low 116 yards and had one touchdown and one pick. Regardless of the fact that the Patriots ended up winning the game (New England got 152 rushing yards, its second-highest total of the season), Brady would dearly love a chance to bounce back in the heat of South Florida. He’ll face a secondary that has had depth problems, and if the Patriots are interested in coming out in three- and four-receiver sets (like we saw the majority of time after Gronkowski went down last week against the Browns), it would appear that he will have some opportunities.

9. One more thing:
These two teams have played a ton of close games this season, and given the stakes on both sides, there’s no reason to think this won’t be another close one. New England is angling for a shot to clinch the division, and if they can run the table the rest of the way, the Patriots will claim the top seed in the AFC. Ten of the 13 games the Patriots have played have been decided by seven points or less, the most in the last decade for New England. (The Patriots are 7-3 in those games.) Nine of them have come down to the last minute of regulation or overtime. Meanwhile, the Dolphins are 7-6 and in must-win mode — a seven-win team likely won’t make the cut when it comes to the postseason. Miami isn’t too far removed from the grind New England has endured this year, as it has had nine of its 13 games decided by a touchdown or less, including last Sunday’s 34-28 win over the Steelers in snowy Pittsburgh. (Overall, the Dolphins are 5-4 in those close games.)

10. Prediction:

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