The real season begins Sunday for the 5-6 Miami Dolphins. Only a game out of the final Wild Card spot in the AFC standings, three of Miami's next five games will come against first-place teams, including a home date against the rival New England Patriots this week.
The Pats can clinch their 9th division title in the past 10 seasons with a win on Sunday, while a loss could effectively kill Miami's playoff hopes. The Pats will come into Sun Life Stadium a heavy favorite, having defeated Miami in 5 of their past 6 meetings.
When the Dolphins have the ball: The Patriots do a lot of things well, but defending the pass is not one of them. Only two teams have given up more yards through the air, and four have surrendered more passing touchdowns than New England's 22.
But the Pats specialize in takeaways, with 14 interceptions (6th in the NFL) and 18 fumbles recovered (most in the league). The Dolphins are fifth-worst in the NFL with 21 turnovers, and are 1-5 in games when they cough up the ball more than once.
While Miami's strength lies in the running game, rookie QB Ryan Tannehill will have to challenge New England's young secondary, provided he can avoid throwing any picks. Look for the Dolphins to try some deep passes to WR Brian Hartline early in hopes of catching New England off guard.
When the Patriots have the ball: Simply put, there is no offense in the NFL better than the Patriots. QB Tom Brady and co. lead the NFL in points and yards, while also giving up the fewest turnovers in the NFL.
Second-year RB Stevan Ridley has emerged as a solid rusher who can pick up chunks of yards when opposing defenses devote too much attention to New England's receivers. TE Rob Gronkowski is still out with a broken arm, but Brady has plenty of other weapons at his disposal, including former Miami WR Wes Welker, TE Aaron Hernandez, and WR Brandon Lloyd.
Miami gives up more passing yards than all but six other NFL defenses, and have only forced 11 turnovers all season. Brady has had some of the best games of his career against the Dolphins recently (including a 517 yard, 4 TD performance in 2011), which should be giving the Dolphins nightmares.
Who has the edge? New England has been the class of the AFC East for the past decade, Miami will have its hands full on Sunday.
The pick: Patriots 31-Dolphins 16
Details: New England Patriots (8-3) at Miami Dolphins (5-6)
TV: CBS, 1:00pm, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
Line: Patriots by 7
Previously: Miami lost 27-24 in Week 16 last season