Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Are Patriots losing their grip on AFC East title?
For perhaps the first time in a decade, Tom Brady is on the Patriots' active roster and legitimate hope exists elsewhere in the AFC East.
Not since the Patriots put a stranglehold on the division that's produced a run of nine division titles - interrupted only by knee reconstruction for the star quarterback - has there been a real sense that someone else might rip those hats, those T-shirts, that home playoff date away from them. But with Brady's offense struggling, with the defense depleted by injuries, and with the Jets having beat them last week, there are suddenly questions about just how strong a grip New England really has at this point.
So with the Dolphins coming to Foxborough today, the Patriots' purpose is simple: Answer the questions. Erase the doubt. Diminish the hope.
It's not that the Dolphins are playing particularly well. They've dropped three in a row since a 3-0 start, and have turned the ball over seven times in that span. But this isn't about them. It's not about the Jets, despite their 4-3 record, or about the Bills, who are still hanging around at 3-4.
It's about the Patriots, who have done enough to still sit atop the East at 5-2, but who would be in the midst of a three-game losing streak if not for an incredible final-minute drive against the Saints, and who have seemingly lost the air of dominance that in years past would've made a one-game lead going into the halfway mark look like the division was theirs to lose.
Part of that is beyond their control. Defensive captains Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork suffered season-ending injuries, starting lineman Tommy Kelly will miss his third straight game today, star cornerback Aqib Talib is questionable to play, and the offense is yet to play a single snap with its full complement of weapons.
They could come close today, though, with receiver Danny Amendola saying he's ready to return from a concussion, after tight end Rob Gronkowski got back on the field last week. And with that personnel comes the opportunity to make a statement.
Miami's defense has allowed an average of 269 passing yards per game this season, which is 25th-most of the NFL's 32 teams, and only two teams have allowed more passing plays of 40 yards or more than it seven. They've salvaged their passer rating - which is a respectable 82.0 - by making seven interceptions, but there will be opportunities to make plays and move the ball against this Dolphins secondary, so after a rough patch this seems to represent a chance for Brady and his attack to gain some confidence.
And to reassert themselves. Part of what made the Patriots so daunting for opponents in the past was the perpetual threat that New England's offense was about to explode, and while they don't necessarily need to hang 40 on the Fins today, it would be encouraging to see signs that the offense is still capable of dictating the game, influencing opponents' decisions, and simply dangerous enough to deserve respect.
That hasn't been an issue for the Pats in years - but now it is, and with that perception of vulnerability comes hope for their enemies.
"I've never beat the Patriots my entire career," offensive guard Richie Incognito, who is 0-8 lifetime against New England, said early in the week. "It's something I'm hungry for. I told the guys, we've got to make up our mind early in the week to beat these guys. We've got to make up our mind right now, have a good week of preparation and go up there and give them our best shot."
Mindset does matter. Two years ago, the Pats were in a three-way tie atop the division after eight games - but even then there was a sense that the Bills would fade, the Jets weren't quite at the same level, and the Patriots were still ruling the roost. Now, though, that's very much in question.
And the longer the question lingers, the more difficult it will be to answer.
"What we hope we're going to be is a team that will get better every day, every week - that our best football is in front of us. That's what we're trying to do," coach Bill Belichick said. "We'll see. There's a long way to go. I think things are a long way from being decided. We'll just have to see how it all plays out in 2013."
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OVERRATED: Ryan Tannehill. Early in the year - when the Dolphins were winning - it looked as though the second-year quarterback had taken a leap. Now he's got 11 turnovers (seven interceptions) to nine interceptions for the season, and his passer rating has slid to a pedestrian 83.1. He's not quite yet at the level his early play had suggested.
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UNDERRATED: Stephen Gostkowski. Somewhat quietly, in a season where converting red zone opportunities has been an issue, the Patriots' kicker has been excellent. He's 18 of 19 overall, both league highs, he has made both attempts from beyond 50 yards, and only seven of his 38 kickoffs have been returned.
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KEEP AN EYE ON...: Talib. The Dolphins have a couple of dangerous receivers in Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, so the Patriots will be much-better equipped if their best cover man is a go. Kyle Arrington struggled last week against Jeremy Kerley, and Logan Ryanremains a work in progress, so a sidelined Talib could cause serious issues in coverage.
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KEY MATCHUP: Cameron Wake vs. Sebastian Vollmer. The former mortgage broker - that's not a metaphor; it was actually his job coming out of Penn State - attacks quarterbacks with impressive speed, and has 17.5 sacks in his past 21 games, even coming at the QB from his open side on most plays. He has 5.5 sacks in eight career games against the Patriots, so Vollmer will have his hands full.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: Brady enters the eighth game of his season with eight touchdown passes. Not since 2003 has it taken him more than six games to throw his ninth of the year.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.