(Sports Network) - Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be gunning for his 100th career regular season victory on Monday night, and will be doing so in a pivotal AFC East matchup against the rival Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium.
If the first three weeks of the year are any indication, the Patriots are going to need plenty of Brady heroics in order to pull off the victory.
New England entered Week 4 ranked a distant 28th in the league in scoring defense, 27th in yards allowed, 25th in passing defense and 20th in rushing defense. Those represent some of the most grisly defensive numbers of the Bill Belichick era in New England, and enhance the suspicion that the season-ending injuries suffered by end Ty Warren and top cornerback Leigh Bodden in the preseason have had a profoundly negative impact on this group.
Luckily, Brady and the Patriots offense continue to run at a high clip, as in last week's 38-30 win over the Bills, when the attack scored 38 points for the second time in three contests and rolled up a season-high 445 yards of total offense.
Brady (21-of-27 passing, 252 yards, 3 TD) bounced back from a weak showing at the Jets in Week 2, not turning the ball over and complementing a running game that racked up 200 ground yards, including 98 and a touchdown on 16 carries from BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Brady is 99-31 in regular season games lifetime heading into Monday's matchup.
Tony Sparano's club racked up 436 yards of offense - its best showing of the year by a wide margin - but still found itself on the business end of a 31-23 loss to the Jets thanks to the regression of a defense that allowed more than 400 yards and didn't have enough of an answer for Mark Sanchez (256 passing yards, 3 TD), who was not sacked or forced into a turnover all night.
A microcosm of the Fins' night was an early third-quarter sequence which saw Dolphins QB Chad Henne (26-of-44 passing, 363 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) lead a 12- play, 73-yard drive covering 6:13 of the clock, culminating in an 11-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall (10 receptions, 166 yards) that ignited the crowd and put Miami ahead, 17-14.
Then it was all gone, in one play, as Dolphins cornerback Jason Allen fell down while in one-on-one coverage against Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, and watched as Edwards sprinted 67 yards for a touchdown that put the visitors on top to stay.
The Dolphins have 40 wins on Monday night all-time, the most in the AFC and second to only the Cowboys (42) in league annals.
The Patriots, meanwhile, are 10-5 on Monday night under Belichick.
Miami holds a 49-37 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England, including a conventional home-and-home split of last year's series. The Dolphins were 27-17 road losers when the teams met in Week 9, but returned the favor with the aforementioned 22-21 triumph in the return match in South Florida in Week 13. The clubs embarked on an unconventional split of the 2008 home-and-home, including a 48-28 win for New England at Sun Life Stadium.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met three times in the postseason, with New England holding a 2-1 advantage there. The Patriots' most memorable postseason victory over Miami came in the 1985 AFC Championship, when New England escaped with a 31-14 triumph en route to its first-ever Super Bowl appearance. The clubs also met in AFC First-Round Playoff matchups in 1982 and 1997, with Miami winning the former (28-13) and New England taking the latter (17-3).
Belichick is 11-11 against Miami in his head coaching career, including 11-9 while with New England. Sparano - a native of West Haven, CT - is 2-2 versus both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Brady's fleet of targets in 2010 has included a couple of old standbys, and a couple of new faces. Randy Moss (9 receptions, 3 TD) and Wes Welker (18 receptions, 3 TD) continue to represent New England's most dangerous threats, with the duo having combined for six TD catches already, including two from Moss last week. Meanwhile, rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez (13 receptions) and Rob Gronkowski (5 receptions, 2 TD) have been making plenty of noise as well, and should continue to represent viable middle-of-the-field targets for Brady (758 passing yards, 8 TD, 2 INT). The running back situation remains fluid. Green-Ellis (139 rushing yards, 1 TD) was the Pats' lead back last week, with a toe injury to veteran Fred Taylor (98 rushing yards) helping to influence that circumstance. Taylor is questionable for Monday, and his absence would likely lead to more carries for ex-Dolphin Sammy Morris (21 rushing yards) and/or the recently signed Thomas Clayton. A New England offensive line still missing disgruntled guard Logan Mankins has allowed just two sacks on the year to date. The Patriots lead the league in third-down conversion percentage (58.3).
The disconcerting element of the Dolphins' defensive showing against the Jets, and perhaps the silver lining, is that it came after the team had played extremely well on that end of the ball over the first two weeks. They allowed just nine first downs in Week 1 win at Buffalo, then forced four turnovers to fuel an upset victory over the Vikings in Week 2. Mike Nolan's unit will be trying to get that type of mojo back against Tom Brady and company. That said, Miami is dealing with some absences as it takes the field on Monday. Linebackers Channing Crowder (groin), Ikaika Alama-Francis (illness) and defensive lineman Jared Odrick (leg) are all questionable to return to the lineup, and defensive lineman Tony McDaniel (3 tackles) will miss the game while serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. Cornerbacks Allen (22 tackles, 2 INT) and Vontae Davis (9 tackles, 1 INT) will have primary responsibility for defending Moss and Welker, with safeties Yeremiah Bell (29 tackles) and Chris Clemons (14 tackles) lending support over the top. Cameron Wake (8 tackles, 2 sacks) and Koa Misi (8 tackles, 1 sack) fuel a pass rush that was quiet last week. Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (25 tackles, 1 sack) has been among the Fins' most consistent pass rushers.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Henne (659 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) brings a credible 88.5 passer rating into Monday's game, and will be attempting to build on his prolific passing performance against the Jets. Marshall (22 receptions, 1 TD) has looked more comfortable within the offense with each passing week, and wideouts Davone Bess (13 receptions) and Brian Hartline (8 receptions, 1 TD) have made their contributions as well. Bess and Hartline both posted 80-plus yards against the Jets, and tight end Anthony Fasano (5 receptions, 1 TD) hauled in a touchdown pass from Henne. The running game was a disappointing 15th in the league as Week 4 began, with neither Ronnie Brown (199 rushing yards, 1 TD) nor Ricky Williams (120 rushing yards) doing much damage against the Jets last week. Henne has been sacked seven times through three games, something both the quarterback and his offensive line are gong to have to tighten up.
The New England defense, which apart from nose tackle Vince Wilfork and safety James Sanders bears no resemblance to the group that quietly ranked in the Top 10 in most NFL categories back in 2007, needs to begin jelling. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick did throw a couple of picks - with safeties Pat Chung (29 tackles, 1 INT) and Brandon Meriweather (13 tackles, 1 INT) coming down with INTs - but he was also an efficient 20-of-28 passing for 247 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and was sacked just once despite the presence of a below-average offensive line. Youngsters Devin McCourty (12 tackles) and Kyle Arrington (4 tackles) at corner will have their hands full on Monday, as will veteran newcomers Jarrad Page (1 tackle) at safety and defensive lineman Gerard Warren (4 tackles, 2 sacks). The pass rush, led by outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (13 tackles, 1.5 sacks), will try to get to Henne. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (26 tackles, 1 sack) remains among the Pats' most credible run- stoppers. New England has allowed a league-worst 4-of-4 fourth-down conversions on the year.
It's the same as it ever was with the New England offense - Brady, Moss and Welker are locks to start. Tight ends Hernandez and Gronkowski are interesting too, but are rookies and don't figure to be consistent. Green-Ellis could work well as a flex play, and Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski will also contribute something.
Henne might not seem like a front-line fantasy option, but his performance last week and the weakness of the Patriots defense make him a good bye-week replacement, at the very least. Marshall is a must-start at wideout, and Brown is a decent play in the Miami backfield. Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter is a strong play, but steer clear of the Dolphin defense.
Both the Dolphins and Patriots have displayed plenty of flaws on defense, and these teams tend to find ways to score against one another anyway, so expect the scoreboard operator to be somewhat busy here. The game will probably come down to who can make the most stops, and a three-game sample tells us that team will probably be Miami. The Dolphins are just two weeks removed from shutting down Brett Favre and a dynamic Vikings offense, while the Pats have yet to stop anyone consistently. That, coupled with the fact that Miami is desperate not to lose back-to-back division games at home, gives a slight edge to the Dolphins.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 27, Patriots 24