The Patriots earned one of their more impressive victories of the season in Week 13, topping the Vikings 24-10 to improve to 6-0 on their home field. With all eyes looking ahead to a Week 15 showdown in Pittsburgh, New England has to be sure not to overlook this Sunday’s challenge against a divisional foe. Here are three things to watch for when the Patriots face the Dolphins in Miami:
Will the defense continue to take elite steps forward?
The win over Minnesota was the signature performance of the season for Bill Belichick’s defense. Not only did they hold one of the most talented offenses in the NFL to a mere 10 points, they shutdown arguably the best wide receiver duo in the league.
Adam Thielen and Stefan Diggs combined for just 77 yards on 10 catches, although Thielen did haul in the Vikings’ lone touchdown of the game. Keep in mind this duo has already topped 2,000 yards on the season. The Patriots got fantastic pressure on the quarterback, sacking Kirk Cousins twice and forcing him into a pair of interceptions. On top of fantastic open field tackling, the secondary is what really shutdown this elite receiving duo. Per Pro Football Focus, Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty rank as the first and seventh-best cornerbacks in the NFL this season, respectively.
Surrendering just 11.5 points per game since the bye, look for the defense to stay on top of its game Sunday in Miami.
Does the offense need to start preparing for life without Rob Gronkowski?
I pumped up Gronk being in a big bounce-back spot in his first game at home since returning from injury, but the short answer to this question is yes. Gronk simply is not longer himself, and it’s not just because he only caught three passes for 26 yards against Minnesota. He’s slower getting down the field. He’s less physical with defenders. He’s even committing more penalties than we’re used to seeing.
The game against the Vikings was tied at 10 until late in the third quarter, but it was actually Josh Gordon’s downfield ability that ignited the second-half offense. Gordon is being used more sparingly since Gronk’s return, but has caught all eight on his targets since, including three grabs for 58 yards and a touchdown last week.
When the Patriots acquired Gordon, it was as a bonus piece to their offense. At this point, he’s looking more like a necessary piece to keep the offense on track.
Will playing in Miami be a trap game yet again?
Trap game might be the wrong word here, because the Patriots are well aware of just how poor they’ve been in Miami. The Pats have lost four of their last five down in South Beach, including a 27-20 loss last season on Monday Night Football. But it’s not like this trend is anything new — Tom Brady’s just 7-9 as a starter on the road against the Dolphins.
While Miami’s 6-6 on the season, good enough for second place in the AFC East, its just 2-4 over its last six games. The two wins during that span are ugly home wins against the bottom half of the division — 13-6 vs. NYJ and 21-17 vs. BUF. But we can throw the records out the window in this scenario. This has consistently been a bad spot for the Patriots.