This is as sacrilegious to say as it is obvious: The Dolphins will have more talent on the field Sunday than the depleted, suddenly vulnerable Patriots. But maybe that won't matter again.
Maybe champion coach Bill Belichick sprinkles magic like he did against the Dolphins in October. Belichick hit halftime that day down two touchdowns, without his three best defensive players and the hand of his business partner, Tom Brady, hurting as the quarterback threw for fewer yards than in his 61 previous games.
The Patriots still won their seventh straight game against the Dolphins. They still kept on the track to where they can clinch their fifth straight AFC East division title on Sunday.
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So that's what the next step in the Dolphins' uncertain trek to the playoffs hinges on: Whether Belichick and Brady, aided by smoke and mirrors, beat a Dolphins team that has better players across the field in this particular game.
This takes some getting your mind around considering recent achievements of the two franchises. But go down the rosters. Look at the names. The Dolphins are bigger. They're faster. They're far healthier.
They have a better secondary, a stronger tandem of pass rushers in Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, and three better defensive tackles than anything the Patriots offer with their 31st-ranked rushing defense.
The Patriots have a better offensive line, but it's not dominant without injured left tackle Sebastian Vollmer. The Dolphins have a deeper receiving corps with Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and Charles Clay than anything New England can offer.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski can't walk through the door Sunday. Wes Welker or Aaron Hernandez can't. It's cute how Brady nicknamed effective 5-10 receiver Julian Edelman, "Minitron." But that's as close as the comparison gets to Detroit Lions receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson.
On Wednesday, Belichick was asked on a tele-conference call about Josh Boyce, Jamie Collins and Sealver Siliga before anyone mentioned Brady. These are the unknown players asked to fill in for the injured Patriots, like spackle on a broken wall.
"You could lose anybody in any game,'' Belichick said. "What are you going to do? 'We can't play now?' You have an alternative group to play with. That's what we do.
"That's the way it's been this year, that's the way it was last year that's the way it was 10 years ago. I don't know how else you would do it. Whoever the new players are in there, then you do what you've done with those players."
That's what any coach says, and maybe no coach has done more with less than Belichick. He ran off the Super Bowl field with his first championship with an assistant saying, "Can you believe we won with this team?"
"We've faced (injuries) before this year and at different times, so I'd say at least we're adjusted to it a little bit,'' Brady said. "We still have confidence that we can go out and win games."
Confidence is one thing. Cold, hard numbers are another. The Patriots aren't the same without what amounts to three Pro Bowl players. Without Gronkowski for the first six games this year, they were the 30th-ranked red-zone offense. With him for the last eight games, they moved up to fifth.
Without defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Patriots defense has yielded at least 24 points each of the last six weeks. They only gave up that many points in two of their first eight games.
In their first meeting, Hartline figured the Dolphins had to score 30 points against the Patriots to win. They scored 17 in the first half. Belichick then made some adjustments and the Dolphins went scoreless in the second half.
The Dolphins have become better since then. But smarter? That's the question to see. Strange to say considering the Patriots' 10-win status this year, but there's a slight talent imbalance this game.
The Dolphins players know. Have to know. And they have to know enough not to think that can carry the full day. Belichick and Brady have beat them with smoke and mirrors before.