Three things to watch Sunday as the Patriots host the Dolphins in the 2012 regular season finale (4:25 p.m., CBS):
Starting things off
Nobody in the NFL likes to defer to the second half more than Bill Belichick does, but if his team keeps getting off to bad starts he may have to think twice about his coin flip routine. Two weeks ago, the Patriots allowed the 49ers to score a touchdown on their opening drive and eventually trailed at halftime, 17-3. Again, last week against the Jaguars – a team that hadn’t scored an opening drive touchdown all season – New England went down 7-0 after the Jaguars’ 78-yard, nine-play opening drive. A Jaguars field goal would make it 10-0 midway through the first quarter. New England was able to come back against Jacksonville, but spotting any team in the postseason 10 points is a recipe for failure. Belichick will continue to defer to the second half if the Patriots win the toss, but setting the tone early in the game is important moving forward.
Focusing on Miami
It’s very easy to look past Miami toward the playoffs if you’re the New England Patriots or its fans. The problem, though, is that looking past the Dolphins will almost surely make for a disappointing loss for New England. The Patriots are currently the No. 3 seed in the AFC. If they win, and Denver and Houston lose, New England is the No. 1 seed. If they win and either Denver or Houston loses, New England is the No. 2 seed. If everybody wins, they stay at No. 3. It’s easy to get wrapped up in that, but if the Patriots lose, there’s no shot at a bye – and they could even drop to the No. 4 seed with a Baltimore win. So, Bill Belichick is doing the best he can to make sure his team is ready . . . for Miami.
“I’m not trying to look anywhere past Sunday,” Belichick said Wednesday.” I’m just looking to Sunday. Our game against Miami doesn’t stand on its own, but in conjunction with some other games. It could have an impact on what happens to us the following week. We’ll try to do the best we can with our opportunity. That’s all we can do.”
Which ‘D’ will show up?
For everything great that has been said about the Patriots offense, the same has been said about the Patriots defense. Sometimes, though, stats don’t tell the whole story. For example, the Patriots rank 29th in opponent passing yards, giving up an average of 275.5 per game. With that in mind, you’d think they rank near the bottom in points allowed or red zone touchdowns. That’s not true. While the Patriots defense still doesn’t rank near the top, they rank around the middle – which is good enough with the offense they possess. The Pats’ defense is allowing 21.5 offensive points per game this season, ranking them 19th in the NFL. And in terms of opponent red zone scoring attempts, New England allows three trips a game, down from 3.7 trips per game last season. That ranks them 15th in that category this season. And as you’re probably aware, nobody comes close to the Patriots’ takeaway-giveaway ratio, at plus-23.
“I think this year we’ve done a really good job of taking the ball away,” Vince Wilfork told Miami reporters Wednesday. “We’ve been getting a lot of turnovers for our offense. We have probably the best offense there is out there. We understand as a defense that the more we can get the ball to our offense, the more opportunities we’ll have to score points. Everybody understands that. You know what? I can take a back seat to Tom Brady and those guys because they do a hell of a job of moving the ball, keeping teams honest, running it and being able to throw the ball in the air. We know how well we can play as a defense and we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing, and that’s creating turnovers, creating negative plays and playing good team defense.”