The Miami Dolphins have secured a post-season berth for the first time since the 2008 season, with head coach Adam Gase enjoying a fine first term in charge of the club.
The 38-year-old transformed the fortunes for the AFC East outfit after a difficult start to the campaign and now has the dreaming of a deep run in the playoffs.
Miami faces the New England Patriots in their final regular season game with their seeding still to be determined, and a victory over Bill Belichick’s men could see them land a favourable fixture in the wildcard round.
Miami have won nine out of their last 10 contests, and boast a strong record over the Patriots at home, winning at Hard Rock Stadium over their rivals for the past three seasons.
However, the Dolphins do have a number of hobbled players to account for, including running back Jay Ajayi who may require a maintenance week ahead of the playoffs after notching his third 200-yard display of the campaign.
On the other hand, Gase’s men have plenty of motivation to win the fixture as a victory could see them leapfrog the Kansas City Chiefs into the fifth seed and see them face the Houston Texans in the first round of the playoffs.
New England need to win to guarantee the number one seed, although considering the Oakland Raiders are without quarterback Derek Carr, their chances to snatch it away against the Denver Broncos are limited with Matt McGloin replacing him at signal-caller.
The Patriots have enough depth on their side and have the knowledge that they have an extra week off to prepare for their first post-season encounter. Therefore backing them at -450 with TopBet sportsbook would be a prudent option, especially with Tom Brady still in the MVP hunt.
The majority of the Dolphins squad will be entering new territory as they prepare for post-season action. Key players such as Cameron Wake and Jarvis Landry have not experienced playoff football and may be cautious over their health in the final game of the campaign to preserve their bodies for the wildcard round.
However, Gase’s side still have the opportunity to push their case for the fifth seed rather than the sixth that would see them face the Texans over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As a result, there is motivation for the Dolphins to avoid the Steelers’ high-powered offense in favour of the Texans, who have somehow propelled themselves into the post-season despite their struggles at the quarterback position.
The Patriots are a fierce obstacle to overcome in their pursuit of a higher seeding due to Brady’s form this term, while their defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL. Even with Ryan Tannehill the Dolphins would have found life tough, but with backup Matt Moore in place, they will have to play a flawless game to record their fourth win on the bounce over Belichick’s men at SunLife Stadium.
Ajayi has been a sensation for the club since entering the starting line-up early in the campaign, and racked up his third 200-yard rushing performance in their win over the Bills. He took a few knocks in the contest last week, which could see Gase rest his star man ahead of the playoffs, especially as they may see the Steelers, who he enjoyed great success against earlier in the season.
Defensively there are a few concerns as safety Isa Abdul-Quddus joined Reshad Jones on injured reserve, leaving Miami with Baccari Rambo and Michael Thomas to man the fort. Byron Maxwell has struggled with an ankle problem, which will leave inexperienced men Xavien Howard and Tony Lippett exposed against Brady and his potent offense.
The Patriots’ 2015 season ended in disappointment as they were defeated in the AFC Championship by the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field.
Belichick’s men allowed home-field advantage to slip through their fingers, losing back-to-back matches at the end of the term to the New York Jets and the Dolphins, where they executed a bizarre gameplan to preserve their players ahead of the playoffs.
Had the Patriots beaten the Jets or the Dolphins in the final two weeks, they have secured back-to-back Super Bowl crowns. As a result, they were even more determined to attain the number one seed this time around and hammered New York last week. Belichick will be eyeing a similar statement game to sign off the regular campaign and to head into the post-season with momentum.
New England took the opportunity to rest starters Dont’a Hightower and Matthew Slater last week, who are nursing mild injuries. They could do the same against the Dolphins along with offensive players Martellus Bennett and Malcolm Mitchell, who have had similar ailments.
Brady has missed practice time with a thigh concern, although he will not miss time on the field after his suspension ruled him out of the previous meeting with Miami earlier in the campaign.
The Patriots appear to be firing on all cylinders ahead of the playoffs, especially on defense where they have risen to become the best scoring defense in the NFL, allowing just 15.7 points per game. Should they keep the Dolphins out of the endzone on Sunday, it will be their best three-game stretch under Belichick during his 17 illustrious years at the club.
New England are peaking at the right time and unlike last season have the strength on the offensive line to hold off Ndamukong Suh along with Wake and Mario Williams. Therefore a Patriots victory looks to be on the cards to avenge their costly defeat of last season.
History is on the Dolphins side as Brady and company have failed to fire on all cylinders in their trips to Florida.
However, unlike the Patriots’ previous visits Miami have something to look ahead to rather than playing for pride and players could be thinking about their health, considering that Gase’s men are thin in a lot of areas ahead of their wildcard clash.
As a result of the home side’s woes, especially in their secondary, expect Brady to enhance his claim for MVP with a fine performance at Hard Rock Stadium to guide him to the number one seed at -450 .
New England Patriots to beat Miami Dolphins
Sunday January 1st 2017 13:00 ET (18:00 GMT)