By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots play on the road for three of their four September games to begin the 2014 season, and it all starts Sunday afternoon at Sun Life Stadium against the Miami Dolphins. Under third-year head coach Joe Philbin and new general manager Dennis Hickey, the Dolphins are looking to reach the AFC playoffs for the first time since 2008, when they won the division and lost 27-8 to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round.
Miami finished the 2013 season in 3rd place in the AFC East with an 8-8 record. The Dolphins have not finished above .500 since 2008, when they won the division with an 11-5 record. The teams split the season series last year, with the Dolphins losing at New England 27-17 before winning at Miami 24-20. The victory in December was Miami’s first win over New England since 2009.
Miami’s rivalry with New England dates back to 1966, when the Dolphins were born as an AFL expansion franchise. The Dolphins lead the all-time series against the Patriots 50-44, although they trail the Patriots in the playoffs 1-2. The most-recent playoff meeting was in 1997, when the Patriots defeated the Dolphins 17-3 in New England in a Wild Card playoff.
Dolphins on Offense
Since winning the quarterback job as a rookie in 2012, Ryan Tannehill as started all 32 games for the Dolphins. He has struggled at times, but much of the blame can be given to his offensive line, which allowed him to be sacked a league-leading 58 times in 2013. The Dolphins drafted offensive linemen in the first and third rounds last spring, and they signed several more as free agents, including 2013 Pro Bowl tackle Branden Albert. If the revamped offense line gives Tannehill more time to throw, Miami should score more than the 19.8 points per game it scored last season.
Tannehill’s top returning receiver is former Ohio State track star Brian Hartline, who caught 76 passes for 1016 yards and four touchdowns last season. Mike Wallace wasn’t too far behind, catching 73 passes for 930 yards and five touchdowns. Running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas split most of the carries last year, combining for 1115 yards and eight touchdowns, and Thomas added two additional touchdowns among his 15 pass receptions. But unfortunately for Tannehill, neither of these backs were much help in pass protection, so the Dolphins signed former Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno to help solve that problem.
Dolphins on Defense
They don’t get a lot of press as an elite defense, but the Dolphins have finished among the top eight teams in the NFL in scoring defense in each of the past three seasons. Defensive end Olivier Vernon earned 11.5 sacks last season, and he is also solid against the run. Fellow end Cameron Wake was limited by injury last year, but he is expected to be a major contributor as long as he remains healthy. The linebacking corp isn’t as strong as the front four, but Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler both have above-average speed. Miami’s best defensive back is cornerback Brent Grimes, who had four interceptions and 17 passes defended in 2013. He will be joined at the other corner by veteran Cortland Finnegan, who was acquired as a free agent.
Miami is probably the team most likely to break New England’s stranglehold on the AFC East. In getting a season opener at home against the Patriots, Miami will be looking to make a statement. New England may still win the division even if it loses this game, but don’t be surprised if the Dolphins demonstrate that they are a playoff contender for 2014.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He’s also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women’s college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.