NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-2) AT MIAMI DOLPHINS (5-7)
SERIES HISTORY: 102nd regular-season meeting. Dolphins lead series, 52-49. Like the rest of the AFC East, this rivalry goes back to the days of the AFL. Though Miami once held a pretty dominating advantage, New England has tightened the series in Bill Belichick's tenure, even though trips to South Beach have been hit or miss over the years. The Patriots are 23-10 against the Dolphins since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback in 2001, with eight of those losses coming in Miami. New England has actually lost three of its last four trips to Miami, though it took care of business in last season's finale with a 35-14 win. The Patriots also dispatched the Dolphins 35-17 just two weeks ago in Foxborough.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots offensively have balanced things out in recent weeks, including consecutive games with 190-plus yards rushing. The first of those performances came against the Dolphins. So, with Tom Brady nursing an Achilles injury and leading receiver Rob Gronkowski suspended, Monday night's trip to Miami should see Dion Lewis and Co. get more chances to put forth a consistent ground game against the Dolphins' 21st-ranked run defense.
Defensively, the Patriots' first priority and biggest challenge is stopping Kenyan Drake and the Dolphins' running game. Drake had 120 yards in last week's win over the Broncos. The Patriots allowed the Bills to churn out 183 yards on the ground in Buffalo and have allowed 100 yards rushing in five of the last six games.
It's essential that Miami gets an early lead. The Dolphins saw what could happen last week when they get an early lead -- the pass rush becomes a factor and the entire defense becomes better. Getting a lead won't ensure a victory against the high-scoring Patriots, but it would help Miami get to its most advantageous situation.
The Dolphins hit Brady eight times in their 35-17 loss two weeks ago. That's a start. Short of that, Miami must play an almost flawless game when it comes to pre-snap penalties, blown coverages and other things that have been costly this season.
If Miami has to play from behind, meaning it is forced to pass and therefore to put the game on quarterback Jay Cutler, it will likely be a long day.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry vs. Patriots CBs Malcolm Butler and Jonathan Jones. New England has mixed up its cornerback assignments in recent weeks, including both Butler and Jones seeing time covering Landry in the meeting with Miami two weeks ago. Landry is one of the more consistently productive receivers in the game today, having tallied at least five catches in every game this season. He leads Miami with 80 catches for 699 yards and six touchdowns. Two weeks after watching Landry haul in eight passes for 70 yards in Foxborough, New England's focal point on pass defense will be keeping the slot machine in check.
--Patriots C David Andrews vs. Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh. While Suh will actually be the responsibility of the line as a whole given his ability to move around the front, Andrews will literally be at the center of it all. Andrews will physically need to be up to snuff when blocking Suh on the inside and also ensure that line calls are well executed. With Brady limping around with an Achilles issue, keeping Suh from inflicting more pain on Brady is priority No. 1.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots WR Danny Amendola. No player in New England has been more clutch on a per-play basis in recent years than Amendola. His knee issues limit his reps and role at times; but, with Rob Gronkowski suspended, the Patriots could turn to Amendola to pick up the slack out of the slot. Amendola has had three or fewer catches in five of the last seven games, but Brady could turn to his trusted slot option more often with Gronkowski out of the mix.
FAST FACTS: Patriots QB Tom Brady leads the NFL with a 109.7 passer rating. He passed for four TDs and one interception in the last meeting. In the past four games against Miami, he has 11 TDs and one interception. He is one of four players in NFL history with 65,000 passing yards (65,214). He has 55 wins in December, most by a starting QB in any calendar month in league annals. He has 3,632 passing yards in 2017 and can become the third player with nine 4,000-yard seasons. ... RB Rex Burkhead had 103 scrimmage yards (78 rushing) and two rushing TDs in Week 13. He aims for his third game in a row with two or more TDs. He had two TDs in the last meeting. ... DE Trey Flowers had two sacks and a forced fumble in the last meeting. ... Miami QB Jay Cutler passed for two TDs last week. He has two or more TDs in five of his past six games. In his last game against New England, he passed for three TDs and one interception. ... RB Kenyan Drake rushed for a career-high 120 yards and a TD in Week 13. He has 100 scrimmage yards in two of the past three games at home. He aims for his third game in a row with a TD. He had a TD catch in the last meeting. ... CB Xavien Howard had two interceptions, including a 30-yard TD return, and five passes defensed in Week 13.
PREDICTION: The Patriots were terrible defensively in their first four games. They have been anything but terrible in the last eight, and the Dolphins' offense doesn't figure to be the one that solves them on a Monday night in South Florida.
OUR PICK: Patriots, 31-20.