Game Preview: Week 17, Patriots vs. Miami
The problem you encounter when things are going your way is that you tend to ignore the problems coming your way. So anyone thinking the 8-7 Miami Dolphins are going to be a pushover in Gillette Stadium today should think again.
The Fins have won five straight and are playing their best football of the season following head coach Nick Saban's comments several weeks ago that it didn't matter what the final score was of any game, he was evaluating talent for next year's team. The message came through loud and clear: The Dave Wannstedt era is over; practice hard and play hard or get in the wind. Fortunately, he hadn't made his ultimatum a couple weeks earlier or today's game might be for the division title.
Saban has brought a Bill Belichickian work ethic and team concept to Miami, and he's already reaping results. A team thought to be the doormat of the AFC East has had a late-season surge not unlike those of Belichick's New England Patriots (10-5).
What remains to be seen is whether they can handle another hot team in a cold weather climate. Of their five recent wins, three were at home and the two road games were in the inhospitable weather conditions in Oakland and San Diego. So the Dolphins haven't played a cold-weather game this year. The only good team they've played in that stretch was the Chargers, who they beat by two points. Prior to the streak, they lost six of seven.
OK, so which is it? Are they good, or aren't they?
Fine, they're good, but they're untested. Today's game will be a test for both teams. The Patriots, to show that they're definitely ready for the playoffs and that they can play defense without linebacker Tedy Bruschi. The Dolphins, to show that they're not going to fold in adverse conditions, especially the conditions that would make them fold like an unsuited 2-7 in past years.
New England, of course, is on a streak of their own, and for their part, they have beaten only one decent team in that stretch, but having utterly dismantled each team more and more along the way. And they're at home, where, with few exceptions, they've been unbeatable. And they're playing in the cold, snowy conditions in which they seem to excel as much as other teams flounder.
So with Miami playing for the future, and the Patriots playing possibly to move up to the No. 3 seed, what do you expect for today's game?
The first question you have to answer is whether you think Belichick wants the No. 3 seed, the No. 4 seed, or doesn't care. My bet is that he doesn't care. He'll prepare for whoever ends up next. Kansas City is an unlikely opponent, and he has game plans for Pittsburgh, so he only as to worry about the circumstance they play Jacksonville, who shouldn't pose a monumental challenge.
So forget next week and worry about this week. That's what Belichick does anyway. And this game has a similar recipe to the last few games, which should be the recipe no matter who they face next week: "Stop the run. Pressure the quarterback." Sound familiar?
That task should be made easier by the fact that Dolphin running back Ronnie Brown should be inactive with knee and ankle injuries. That means the Patriots can concentrate on running back Ricky Williams, who, while improving, still isn't the Ricky of 2-3 years ago. He's still the Ricky that Asante Samuel plastered in the game that separated the division winner from the runner up.
With Williams negated, it's tee-off time on Gus Frerotte, who is probably playing his last game in a Miami uniform. He'll want to put in a good show so he can land on his feet with another team. He'll have his work cut out for him with the New England front seven dogging him. The Patriots defense may not be as potent without Bruschi, but Monty Beisel put in some good reps last week, chasing Brooks Bollinger and Vinnie Testaverde around. You may see New England in more 4-3 alignments to make up for the missing Bruschi.
The offense will probably force the running game issue like last week and just "play their game" in a tune-up for next week. A few short alternating passes and runs with a deep ball mixed in. The snow should clear up for the most part by game time, so that probably won't be a factor for either team. Still, as it is in the playoffs, ball control is the name of the game.
Expect the starters to play at least the whole first half, unless it somehow turns into a blowout one way or the other. If there's an unexpected repeat of last year's lackluster performance against San Francisco in the season finale, expect the same treatment. Otherwise, it should be a fairly short day for the first squads.
Saban will probably leave his starters in the whole game, so that should make the result interesting. If the Patriot starters build a lead and the backups give it up, the starters may return. Regardless of seeding, it's still important to post a W. It's not as meaningless as most experts would have you think.
Officiating anachronism Tom White referees today's game. Formerly one of the better officials, his crew has been suspect in recent years. Expect some pretty inefficient officiating and be glad this game doesn't mean more than it does.
Prediction: Patriots, 23-20.
We're stuck with play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan and color analyst Randy Cross again today. They're certainly not the worst. They're not the best. "Cross Talk" is a lame, mis-named feature that implies something it's not. That annoys me. So there. As usual, you can catch a better audio description of the game on WBCN 104.1 FM with Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti.
Happy New Year!