The New England Patriots will begin life without Rob Gronkowski for the second time this season as they attempt to clinch their fifth consecutive AFC East title and 10th in 11 years on Sunday when they visit the Miami Dolphins.
The Patriots have rallied in each of their last three contests to post a dramatic victory — including last week’s stirring 27-26 triumph over Cleveland despite seeing their star tight end suffer a gruesome season-ending knee injury. New England also played the comeback card in the first meeting with Miami, overcoming a two-touchdown halftime deficit en route to a 27-17 victory on Oct. 27.
The lone hiccup in the Patriots’ divisional dominance came in 2008, when the Dolphins seized the title. Fast forward to the present, Miami has won two in a row and four of six to keep pace with Baltimore (7-6) for the AFC’s final postseason berth — although the Ravens won a head-to-head contest earlier in the season. The Dolphins eclipsed the 30-point plateau for the first time in last week’s 34-28 victory over Pittsburgh.
TV: 1 p.m. CBS.
ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (10-3): Coach Bill Belichick was matter of fact when discussing the loss of Gronkowski, saying that “We’ve played a lot more of this season without him than with him.” New England’s offense sputtered a bit as it adjusted to his initial absence, which lasted the first six weeks of the campaign following offseason surgeries on his forearm and back. Tom Brady will likely need to continue to lean on wideout Julian Edelman (team-leading 76 receptions) as well as Shane Vereen and the running game to counteract the loss of his Pro Bowl tight end.
ABOUT THE DOLPHINS (7-6): Despite being sacked a league-high 47 times, Ryan Tannehill has steadily improved and matched a career best with three touchdown passes last week versus the Steelers. Versatile tight end Charles Clay reeled in two to extend his team lead to seven in that department and has seven catches in each of the last two contests. Clay, who had five receptions against New England in the first meeting, has 678 yards receiving for the second-best total by a Miami tight end since Randy McMichael (791, 2004).
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Patriots DE Chandler Jones vs. Dolphins LT Bryant McKinnie: Jones had four sacks in November but was stonewalled by McKinnie in Week 8 just days after the tackle was acquired via trade. With the Patriots’ front banged up, Jones is looked to for regular pressure off the edge to slow Tannehill.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Patriots WR Josh Boyce: With Gronkowski down, the speedster Boyce received his first extensive playing time this season last week while Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) and Aaron Dobson (foot) were inactive due to injury. Boyce caught three passes for 49 yards against the Browns, and also drew a 29-yard pass interference call in the end zone that set up the game-winning score with less than a minute to play.
GAME NOTES: Miami RB Lamar Miller cleared the league’s concussion protocol and is line to play versus New England. Miller rolled up 89 yards on 18 carries in the teams’ first meeting. … The Patriots have won seven straight against the Dolphins, but just seven of their last 13 meetings in South Beach under Belichick’s watch. … Miami speedy WR Mike Wallace will likely be matched up with New England CB Aqib Talib, who is nursing a hip injury.