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It was December of 2009. Four years ago. That’s the last time the Dolphins have beaten the New England Patriots. Seems like an eternity, doesn’t it? There have been seven straight losses during that time, five by double digits. A tough stretch. A disappointing stretch. A stretch filled with different storylines, but always the same discouraging finish.
Will this Sunday be any different?
I’ve got a real sense that it will be. I look at these two teams and where they are heading and what they have done and I truthfully see this as an excellent opportunity for the Dolphins to finally prevail. For one half in their earlier meeting, the Dolphins led 17-3 and had all the answers before everything fell apart in the second half. The challenge now is sustaining that for an entire game.
“There is nothing to wait for,” said coach Joe Philbin. “It is time to play a complete game.”
This game seems to set up perfectly for the Dolphins. They have won two-in-a-row and appear to have found their mojo after back-to-back road victories over the Jets and Steelers. They are back at home, relatively healthy, and they are as confident as they have been in a while.
The Patriots have been riddled with injuries on defense and have just lost for the season their best offensive player not named Brady (Rob Gronkowski). They are coming off a last-second victory in Cleveland when, in truth, they struggled for much of the game. This is not yesterday’s New England. Even with Tom Brady behind center, they are clearly no longer as dominant as they once were.
The biggest difference between these two teams is the Patriots are winning close games and the Dolphins, far too many times, are falling just short.
“If a couple of plays had gone differently, they’d have 9 or 10 wins too,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick on the Dolphins.
That, in truth, is how close these two teams are. One or two plays. A missed field goal. A sack. The Dolphins are so close to residing right with the Patriots in the AFC East standings instead of being three games out. But they only have themselves to blame for that.
Sunday, though, is a new day. I can’t remember the last time I felt better about the Dolphins chances against these guys. I can’t remember the last time the Dolphins seemed to have enough quality pieces in place to offset what the Patriots are all about.
“We have a great opportunity in front of us,” said cornerback Brent Grimes. “They are a great team, but this one is on us. All we can worry about is how we play.”
With that in mind, here’s a quick checklist of five things the Dolphins absolutely must do to get their first win since a one-point victory over the Patriots on Dec. 6, 2009.
• Tannehill must step up. We have seen signs over the past month that Ryan Tannehill’s game is about to reach another level. Wouldn’t Sunday be a great time to do it?
• Charles Clay must make a difference. This is the wild card for the Dolphins. The Pats don’t have Gronkowski so the Dolphins will have the best tight end on the field. Clay is coming off the best game of his career against the Steelers. A similar performance Sunday is exactly what the Dolphins need.
• Wake and Vernon must cause havoc: The Dolphins have to get to Brady, have to make him uncomfortable. Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon are, at this precise moment, at the very top of their games. A sack or two from each could be a ticket to victory.
• The Dolphins must come up takeaways: The stats say when the Dolphins win the turnover/takeaway battle, they usually win the game. It is a formidable challenge against Brady. The Patriots aren’t usually in a generous mood. The Dolphins must do something about that.
• Finish strong: This has been the story of the Dolphins season. When they struggle in the fourth quarter, they lose. When they make important plays, like against the Jets and Pittsburgh, they walk away happy. Against a team like the Patriots, there absolutely has to be a finishing kick.
So the stage is set. The stakes are clear. The Dolphins are brimming with confidence. We’ll find out on Sunday whether that confidence is justified.
On Monday, AC in the AM breaks down the game against the Patriots.