Dolphins 24, Patriots 20
STRATEGY: The Patriots have an offense that is still in transition after losing tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Their talents are irreplaceable in the short term and the team is waiting for a trio of rookie wide receivers to become consistent threats. As a result, the Patriots spread the field horizontally with a quick passing game and a lot of screens so Tom Brady can get the ball to shifty wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. When they do run the ball, they do it pretty effectively. Defensively, the Patriots have personnel to play in multiple fronts, but they have used mostly a 4-3 since losing nose tackle Vince Wilfork. They like to play man coverage but will mix in some zone looks.
PERSONNEL: The Patriots have been forced to adapt after injuries to Pro Bowl players in Gronkowski, Wilfork and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo. Another important player was injured in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Dolphins, as left tackle Nate Solder suffered a head injury and had to be replaced by left guard Logan Mankins. The Patriots have had success running the ball behind one of the NFL's better offensive lines with a few different running backs this season. The defense has been vulnerable in recent weeks, but they still have difference-makers in right end Chandler Jones and cornerback Aqib Talib, with whom they like to shadow one receiver as they did Sunday, putting him on Brian Hartline.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Patriots played a pretty clean game. Brady was efficient, the offense avoided turnovers and the team committed just one penalty, for two yards. Though it took a while to get the screen game going, Brady was able to pick the Dolphins apart with quick passes, allowing Edelman and Amendola to pile up yards after the catch. They didn't run the ball much, but when they did, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley pounded out positive gains. The Patriots had 453 yards of total offense, not that you could have told by looking at the scoreboard. The defense sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill four times, including one in which Jones made former Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie look pretty silly.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The Patriots struggled to score touchdowns inside the red zone, coming away with seven points just once in four opportunities. Gronkowski was their only real red-zone threat before he tore up his knee and their lack of size at receiver is a major issue inside the 20-yard line. The Patriots allowed Tannehill to throw for 312 yards and three touchdowns and he led touchdown drives late in both halves, including the game-winning score with 1:15 left in the game. The Patriots had a chance to reclaim the lead, but Brady threw four incompletions into the end zone and then was picked off.
TURNING POINT: The Patriots, leading by three points down the stretch, had a chance to stop the Dolphins on fourth-and-5 near midfield. But the Dolphins converted when tight end Charles Clay caught a screen pass that was thrown behind him, dodged one Patriots defender and fell across midfield for the first down. Five plays later, Tannehill threw the game-winning touchdown pass.
X-FACTOR: The play of New England's offensive line could determine the outcome of Sunday's game. In the AFC championship game last year, the Ravens flustered Brady with their pass rush and forced him to throw a pair of interceptions and a bunch of errant passes. They will look to do it again with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, but if the Patriots can give Brady time, his wide receivers may do a lot of damage after the catch. Solder's status looms large heading into this one.
—Matt VenselCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun