By Nick Shook
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New England and Miami clash on Monday night in an annual battle between two teams with very different trajectories.
There are the Patriots, who at 10-2 are comfortably perched atop the AFC East, needing just one win in the final four games to clinch yet another division crown. Business is good as usual in New England.
And then there are the Dolphins, a team that entered the season with high hopes and renewed optimism even after losing Ryan Tannehill. Things haven’t gone according to plan.
What you get with the 2017 Dolphins is uncertainty off the top, followed by surprise or frustration. The majority of Miami’s games — save for a few blowout losses — have been one-score differences. The Dolphins didn’t record a dominant win until last week’s drubbing of the moribund Denver Broncos. A lot of it starts and ends with Jay Cutler, who’s been competitive at best and disastrous at worst. Essentially, Cutler has served as the embodiment of Miami’s season.
So this one should be a blowout, just like New England’s 35-17 win over the Dolphins two weeks ago, right?
Not so fast. We’ll explain why in this week’s group of what to watch for in Monday Night Football.
1. Yes, we’ll knock this one out right off the top: Miami has rarely been friendly to Tom Brady. The quarterback has come away with the most losses of any one location in his career (outside of his home of Foxborough), going 7-8 in 15 career games against the Dolphins in Miami. Blame it on the humidity, the fans, the Miami nightlife or the wizardry of Tony Sparano — Brady historically struggles in the environment.
But these aren’t the Patriots of old, or even of weakness. The early season worries about New England’s defense have been all but vanquished, the Patriots have the league’s best offense and they’re facing a Dolphins team that can’t decide whether up or down is the right direction. This contest looks to be the one in which Brady brings that record in Miami back to .500.
2. With Miami in a peculiar situation in terms of looking ahead, this contest — and really, much of the last few weeks — has no defined direction. While the league’s bottom-feeders are spending the final month grasping at elusive wins or playing the youngsters to get a look at the future, Miami is largely constructed as a team that’s supposed to contend now. At 5-7, they haven’t done that. Mathematically, they still have a chance, but this could be the game that determines which direction in which the Dolphins want to move in the final month. Cutler is signed for just this season, but the future isn’t healthy enough to play. Where we might see some inexperienced players see time is defensively, where the Dolphins are flush with younger guys. Against the league’s best offense, perhaps this becomes a crucible game for that group, especially if New England takes a big lead early.
3. Gronk-less Pats. New England will again be forced to adjust without its star tight end due to his one-game suspension levied against him for a late hit in a win over the Buffalo Bills. Fortunately for the Patriots, this could be the best thing to happen to their offense. Unlike years past, when injury sidelined Gronk, New England knows he’ll be back — but has an opportunity to prepare for his absence in a game that isn’t all that meaningful. Chris Hogan is also expected to play after missing time due to injury. Expect Josh McDaniels to test some different personnel groupings in a rare opportunity to toy with an offense in a late-season game.
4. Does Miami want to be here? The Dolphins aren’t eliminated, but they’d need a whole lot of help, as well as a winning streak to somehow land in the postseason. The biggest thing to watch in the meantime, then, is how hard Miami plays down the stretch. The Dolphins are a veteran-laden team careening toward an 8-8 or worse finish. Will they give their full effort in these final games or pack it in? This is important, because it reflects how a coaching staff is connecting with its players. In year two, Adam Gase has seen his team take a step back. They seemed like it last week in a blowout win, but are the Dolphins still playing for him?