Something tells me this won’t be the last time we preview an AFC East match-up as our game of the week here at LBS. We came into the season thinking the the AFC East would probably be the NFL’s toughest division, and the first three games have done nothing to change our opinion. This week, the New England Patriots (2-1) travel to Miami to take on the Dolphins (2-1) in what should be a tight contest as always.
While we may not realize it in week four, these AFC East games have enormous playoff implications. The Dolphins, Patriots, and Jets all enter week four with 2-1 records and a legitimate shot at winning the division. At least two of the teams will likely finish the season with the same record, meaning the head-to-head match-ups will serve as the first tie breaker. The Patriots defense has looked horrible to begin the season and they’ve had trouble playing on the road the past two years. Traveling to Miami on Monday night may not be the right medicine to cure their road woes.
1. Chad Henne vs. the Patriots’ Secondary
New England’s secondary has been embarrassing thus far in 2010. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 247 yards and 2 touchdowns against them last Sunday. Need I say more? Henne had a breakout game for Miami on Sunday night against a tough Jets defense — albeit a Revisless one. He threw for over 350 yards and two touchdowns and was finally able to put together a solid game with star receiver Brandon Marshall (10 catches, 166 yards, 1 TD). Why bother with the wildcat? The Patriots can’t stop the pass. Miami’s passing game couldn’t have gelled together at a worse time for Bill Belichick and company.
2. The Patriots in the Second Half
As bad as the Patriots have been on the road the past two seasons, they’ve been even worse in the second half of those games. Last year in Miami, New England took a 14-10 lead into the half and ended up losing 22-21. This season, they took a 14-10 lead into the half against the Jets and lost 28-14. They’ve made a habit of not coming up with the right halftime adjustments and laying an egg in the second half of road games. Everyone in the league knows that, so you’d better bet the Dolphins and their fans know that.
Regardless of the halftime score, south Florida will be rocking when the 3rd quarter gets underway. New England has to prove they can overcome it if they want to be considered elite.
3. The Patriots’ Tight Ends
In seasons past, New England has not leaned heavily on its tight ends in the passing game. That appears to be changing in 2010. Rookie Aaron Hernandez has quietly emerged as one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets, catching six passes in each of the last two games. He’s one of the better big men in the game right now at running after the catch. The same can be said of fellow rookie Rob Gronkowski in the red zone, as he’s caught two touchdowns from Brady already this season. As the two rookies get more experienced and continue to improve, the Patriots’ passing attack could become that much more dangerous. Could this be the week they go off?
The big one for the Patriots continues to be Fred Taylor. He’s been battling turf toe all season and it looks like he could end up inactive on Monday night for the first time this year. After having dealt Laurence Maroney and lost Kevin Faulk to a torn ACL, New England is very thin at running back to begin with. They have to run the ball effectively on the road if they want to control the second half. BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be leaned on heavily if Taylor can’t suit up.
Tackle Jake Long missed practice earlier in the week and had a brace on his knee, but is said to be good to go for Monday. The Dolphins want him in there for obvious reasons, one of which being they don’t want to antagonize a fairly pedestrian New England pass rush. While he isn’t listed on the official injury report, Ronnie Brown is supposedly nursing a hamstring injury. Miami offensive coordinator Dan Henning said Brown injured the hamstring during last week’s game against the Jets but has been playing through it. It doesn’t seem like much of a concern.
Believe it or not, I don’t think Brady’s a must-start in this game. Chances are you don’t have a better option anyway, but he’s been horrendous on the road for a pretty long stretch of time — particularly in the second half. It seems like every time the Patriots go to New York or Miami Brady gets harassed in the second half. I’d roll with Moss and Welker as usual and I’d even take a shot on Aaron Hernandez if you have him stashed away. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has an outside shot at producing as a flex option, if for no other reason than they have no one else.
If you need help because of a bye (like I did with Tony Romo), Chad Henne is a great option this week. Quarterbacks have been destroying the Pats’ defense and there’s no reason to think this week will be much different. That, of course, makes Brandon Marshall a very strong play this week and any other Miami receiver if you need a WR3. I’d go with Ronnie Brown over Ricky Williams if I were to pick one, but I think the Dolphins will wisely focus on throwing the ball. Ricky Williams just hasn’t gotten it done so far and he’s also come down with a case of the fumbles.
This is a huge divisional game and a battle of 2-1 teams, so obviously it could go either way. Until the Patriots prove they can win a big game — or any game for that matter — on the road, I won’t feel comfortable picking them. I think a lot of their struggles are mental at this point and they know they’ve always had a tough time playing in Miami. If they can pull off a win, it would be huge for New England’s position in the AFC East as well as their psyche going forward. The same goes for the Dolphins, and I think they’ll exploit the Patriots’ poor secondary and their troubles on the road enough to pull out a win.