It's Now or Never for the Patriots in their Foxborough Finale
Updated: Jan 3
Somehow, someway, the Patriots remain in contention for an AFC Wild Card playoff spot despite losing four of their last five games. Believe it or not, the Miami Dolphins are in the same situation, having lost four of five themselves, and four in a row. Their playoff hopes have gone from near-guaranteed to grim in the matter of just a month. Last Sunday Tua Tagovailoa suffered his third concussion of the season, which puts Teddy Bridgewater in line to start what is essentially a must-win game for both teams.
On top of Tua’s concussion, both teams are severely banged up entering this Week 17 matchup. On Thursday alone, around a dozen players total didn’t practice, four of which are due to concussions. Furthermore, the Patriots are trending towards being without three of their four best cornerbacks. Not exactly what you’d call ideal circumstances, but the Dolphins can’t get much colder than they are now, right?
Date: Sunday, January 1st
Start Time: 1:00 EST
Location: Foxborough, Massachusetts
Stadium: Gillette Stadium
TV Info: CBS (Ian Eagle and Charles Davis on the call)
Uniform Info: Blue Jerseys, Blue Pants
Going back to Halloween weekend, the Dolphins have allowed at least 25 points five times in eight games. Largely due to this latest stretch, they now sit as the worst PPG defense in the AFC and the sixth worst in football. In fairness to the Dolphins those, three of those games were against the Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, and Buffalo Bills, who are all currently averaging > 25 points a game.
Pass defense has been another sore spot for the ‘Fins as of late, although better since their Week 11 bye. Even then, they rank bottom five in pass yards per for the season, and recently allowed 350 yards against Justin Herbert under the lights. It’s also worth noting that the secondary in Miami is heavily banged up. They’ve been without safety Brandon Jones for quite some time after he tore his ACL against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Same case for depth cornerback Nik Needham, who tore his Achilles a couple of months ago. Byron Jones has also been an interesting story for Miami all season. After an off-season ankle surgery, he hasn’t played a single game all year. Could easily see the Dolphins try to cut or move him in a few months.
Things aren’t looking super bright for the Miami pass rush either. Bradley Chubb, the Dolphins' deadline acquisition, has been kept out of practice twice this week with an ankle/hand injury. However, Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said that Chubb is “dealing with a number of issues.” That would be a huge loss, but luckily for the Dolphins, they have an excellent depth piece in Melvin Ingram, who’d be a starter on a handful of teams. A shoutout to Jaelen Phillips as well, who’s put up a team-high seven sacks this season, and 15.5 sacks in his first 32 career games.
The key guy on the Dolphins’ defense this week is both the pride of Springfield, Massachusetts, and one of my favorite non-Patriots in the NFL, Christian Wilkins. Three years into his career, he’s already one of the best interior defenders in football, putting up otherworldly numbers this season. Case in point, he’s six tackles away from the most ever in a season by a defensive tackle. Believe it or not, that record currently belongs to former Patriot Rob Ninkovich, who had 91 back in 2013. He’s borderline unstoppable in the run game and is probably going to require some double teams and chips all afternoon.
Twice now in 2022, Tua Tagovailoa suffered a concussion that not a single spotter or medical staffer picked up on. The scary thing is that it wasn’t hard to see either, the back of his head hit the turf pretty well. You would like to think someone who earlier this season, suffered two concussions in under five days, would be monitored a bit more, but I guess not. So once again, Mike McDaniel goes to Teddy Two Gloves to now try and save the Dolphins' season. As it relates to Bridgewater, he is 100 percent capable of doing enough to win at least one of these next two games. It pays to have a serviceable backup QB, and the Dolphins are lucky to have one of the best options in the league.
Tyreek Hill is of course going to get recognition for his role in his Dolphins debut season, but I don’t think he’s the best skill guy in Miami. For my money, that distinction goes to his partner Jaylen Waddle. To put things in perspective, Waddle has gotten 51 fewer targets and 46 fewer catches. Waddle has also picked up only five fewer catches of 20-plus yards than Hill, is only three YAC yards behind him, and is averaging 4.4 more yards a catch. These last two weeks against the Bills and Packers, he has also put up 257 yards and two touchdowns on just eight catches. Simply put, Waddle is preposterously good.
Where injuries have really hit the Dolphins has been with the big boys up front. Left tackle Terron Armstead, listed with four separate ailments, has been a DNP three days in a row, with depth offensive tackle Eric Fisher being ruled out on Friday. But wait there’s more, right tackle Brandon Shell was added to the Dolphins' injury report on Thursday with a shoulder issue but was listed as a full participant on Friday. Additionally, Fullback Alec Ingold has been a DNP twice this week as well with a thumb issue. Not the most promising sign for Bridgewater or running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson. The Dolphins got next to nothing going on the ground against the Patriots in Week 1 for what it’s worth either.
New England Patriots
If you think this game is going to be a cakewalk for the Patriots, you are sadly mistaken. The main reason why is that the Patriots are going to be without Jack and Marcus Jones, and potentially Jalen Mills as well, although he was seen at the final practice of the week. Given the opponent, this couldn’t be happening at a worse time.
With that in mind, the Patriots' first line of defense against the Dolphins' pass catchers could be the group Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Shaun Wade, and practice squaders Quandre Mosely and Tae Hayes. Jon Jones and Bryant are known commodities at this juncture, but the other three may not. I did a scouting report on Wade coming out of Ohio State, but here’s the TLDR. He was very shaky in 2020 when placed on the outside but was a menace in the slot that year and in 2019. Had he gone in the draft a year prior, he goes far earlier than the fifth round. (Full disclosure; I gave Wade a third-round grade)
Mosely, a 2022 UDFA out of Eastern Arizona/Kentucky, has spent time this year in Dallas, Seattle, and Tampa before coming to Foxborough. At 6’2, he brings size to the position, which the Patriots desperately need. Hayes, an App State product, has been in the league since 2019 and even spent this spring with the Birmingham Stallions in the USFL. He hasn’t been in Foxborough for a full week yet, but he might get some serious playing time right away.
With the injuries in the secondary, a lot of the responsibility is going to fall onto the front seven this week for New England. Josh Uche and Matt Judon should be ready to play but keep an eye out for Christian Barmore. For those keeping track, it took teams all of two games of him being back to start triple-teaming him. Let me put it like this, the Cincinnati Bengals willingly left Judon 1-on-1 wide off the edge to prevent Barmore from causing damage right up the middle. Will be interesting to see if the Dolphins do something similar.
Although there was no victory last Saturday, the second-half heroics of Mac Jones and Kendrick Bourne was quite the sight for sore eyes. However, McCorkle made headlines for a, quite frankly, unnecessary slide tackle on Eli Apple. The NFL subsequently fined him a little over 10 thousand dollars for the incident. Nothing he did in the Bears game jumped out as malicious to me, but this was as cut and dry as it gets. Regarding McCorkle’s play, he was significantly better than he was against the Raiders. He was allowed to attack vertically for a good chunk of the second half and made no shortage of big times throws. His turnover-worthy throws metric is also a night and day difference from the first seven games of the season.
Although it wasn’t the only reason they lost, Rhamondre Stevenson’s late-game fumble was a backbreaker, but just his second career lost fumble. There was some debate regarding his forward progress being established before he lost the ball, but since that isn’t reviewable, there wasn’t much he or the Patriots could do about it. Stevenson also didn’t factor much on offense at all, rushing just 13 times for 30 yards. Give the Bengals front seven a ton of credit, but the Patriots needed a bit more last week.
Not much of a surprise at this point in the year, but the Patriots are pretty dinged up at the skill spots themselves. Both Devante Parker and Jonnu Smith have already been ruled out this weekend with concussions. This is now three games missed for Parker if that is the case, hoping he’s holding up well with that said. The good news is that Hunter Henry, who left last week with a knee injury, has been practicing this week, albeit in a limited fashion, and should hopefully suit up.
A Thank You to Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater
I will begin this by saying there is nothing official about either of these players retiring yet but given both McCourty and Slater’s age and expiring contracts, it’s a real possibility this is the final home game for both of these Patriots legends, and this weekend shouldn't be taken for granted if not. If Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are the two most important Patriots from the second half of the Dynasty Era, these two guys are probably next in line.
It feels like ages ago, but McCourty was at one point poised to be the Patriots' No. 1 outside corner for about the next decade. He had seven interceptions his rookie season, and robbed Ndamukong Suh of the last vote he needed to unanimously win the 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Midway through his third season, McCourty was bumped to safety due to the Aqib Talib trade, on top of some rough play at corner. Then he managed to become the anchor of the Patriots' secondary in center field and is still one of the best free safeties in the NFL to this day. Additionally, McCourty has served as a captain for nearly his entire career.
McCourty also got a chance with his brother Jason, to become the first siblings to both play in, and win a Super Bowl playing for the same team back in 2018. Some Patriots fans may remember their moment back after the AFC Championship victory in Kansas City. A great moment considering that Jason hadn’t seen much team success to that point and was even on the 0-16 Cleveland Browns.
Both McCourty brothers got the chance to do a commencement speech together at their alma mater Rutgers, and Devin mentioned that he hoped people would remember he and his brother's work outside of football when talking about their legacy. Well, here you go.
Both Devin and Jason have done work for years bringing awareness to Sickle Cell disease. Their father carried the Sickle Cell trait, and their aunt and uncle both had the disease. For years now, the McCourty Twins have set up fundraising events and blood drives to help combat Sickle Cell, and as of 2019, their non-profit named Tackle Sickle Cell had raised over one million dollars to help research efforts and to directly help those impacted by the disease.
The McCourtys have also done work in the field of criminal justice reform as well as other areas via endorsing legislation as members of the Players Coalition. Here are some quick cliff notes. Jason was a part of a group that helped raise the age of youths entering the Massachusetts juvenile disciplinary system from 7 to 12. Helped restore voting rights for those incarcerated for felonies. In addition to bills that injected over a billion dollars into Massachusetts Public Schools, as well as expanded access to financial literacy and career programs in Massachusetts Public Schools. Devin McCourty, on top of being a first-ballot Patriots Hall of Famer, has shown he is also a first-ballot Hall of Fame person.
Now to Matt Slater, perhaps the best special teams player in the history of football, who is just as good a person and locker room leader. Believe it or not, though, he does have one career NFL catch. It happened, I promise you, there’s the video to prove it, a 46-yard catch in the 2011 opener in Miami. He even made multiple starts that season at Safety as well.
Slater, a 10-time Pro Bowl, and 5-time All-Pro special teamer has what can easily be viewed as a thankless job at face value. In some fashion though, he feels like another Boston legend, Zdeno Chara. Hear me out, did you ever have to really worry about the Bruins' top defensive pairing from 2006-2019? Not even for a second. The Patriots' special team’s coverage unit was in the same boat, and Slater deserves most of the credit for that for as long as he’s been here.
In 2017, Slater also received the honor of winning the Bart Starr Award, which is given to the player who "best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field, and in the community." Four years prior, he won the Patriots annual Ron Burton Community Service Award, given out right before the regular season. On top of his work with the Players Coalition, Slater also notably helped raise over 60 thousand dollars for those affected by the hurricanes in late 2016, among other efforts. Just like McCourty, Slater is as good a person and player, and should hopefully be Canton-bound sooner or later. And as always, Heads > Tails, and thanks for keeping the Teddy Bruschi locker room postgame win tradition alive.
Points Spread: NE -2.5 (-115) | MIA +2.5 (-105)
Moneyline: NE (-154) | CIN (+130)
Over/Under: O 41.5 (-105) | U 41.5 (-115)
Away from Miami Gardens this season, the Dolphins are a 3-5 team against the spread. As crazy as it sounds though, they have also only covered in four games since Tua got hurt in Cincinnati, with an ATS record of 4-8. That’s on top of Miami being 0-4 outright coming into this Patriots game as well. This also may come as a shock, but Dolphins games have also only gone over seven times in 2022, six of those contests were on the road, however.
If you couldn’t tell on the eye test, the Patriots aren’t much of an over team themselves this year. Just twice since the final week of October have they done so, after starting the year going over in 4-of-7. Seeing how this is also the Patriots' fifth divisional game of the season, here’s what they’ve done against AFC East opponents. All four divisional games have gone under to this point, touting a 2-2 ATS and outright record, with both wins and covers coming against the Jets. This week, I’d begrudgingly lean toward Dolphins and under.
On paper, this is yet another winnable game for New England, but with the corner depth chart taking a gigantic hit against a team with as good a receiver room as anyone in the league, it could be a long day on Sunday. With that said, the Patriots defense held up very well against the Dolphins the first go around, and id still expect a good performance, specifically up front with Judon, Uche, Barmore, and friends.
Offensively, if the Patriots just do what they did in the second half against Cincy, they should be just fine. Get Kendrick Bourne the ball early and often, try to get Tyquan Thornton involved, but also get Rhamondre Stevenson going early. You may be shocked to hear however that I have no faith that Matt Patricia will do this, at least until it’s too late like last week. And for the second season in a row, the New England Patriots will tout a below .500 home game-winning percentage.
Final Score: Miami Dolphins 24, New England Patriots 17