Game Preview: Patriots vs Dolphins

Reggie Bush (Robert Mayer-US PRESSWIRE)

WEEK 16 PREVIEW: New England Patriots (11-3) vs Miami Dolphins (5-9). News, notes, stats, links and more...

Miami Dolphins (5-9) at New England Patriots (11-3)

KICKOFF: Saturday, 1 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 12/24/11
VENUE: Gillette Stadium
SURFACE: Field Turf
LOCATION: Foxboro, Mass
FORECAST: Weather.com

TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

PREDICTION: Patriots 35-26

KEYS TO THE GAME: T
he Patriots will insert pass-rushing specialist DE Mark Anderson at right end with Andre Carter (leg) out for the season and Dolphins LT Jake Long (back) ailing. Without pressure on QB Matt Moore, the Patriots' secondary will be under heavy fire. The Patriots used more 3-4 looks at Denver and might combat Dolphins RB Reggie Bush with the same to fill inside running lanes. Even without a running game, the Patriots' no-huddle offense has exhausted defenses, including the Dolphins in a 38-24 win in September. New England's pass-catching tight ends give Miami fits. Rob Gronkowski has 188 yards in his last two games vs. Miami and Aaron Hernandez had 103 yards in the opener.

FAST FACTS:
The Patriots have won 10 straight December games and QB Tom Brady has 10 straight regular-season home wins vs. AFC East opponents. ... Bush is averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the road.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Dolphins

   Anthony Fasano went from the invisible man earlier this season to the Dolphins' primary red-zone target.

   The Dolphins have leaned heavily on the tight end position the past two months, when Fasano's caught four of his five touchdown passes, transforming his worst NFL season into what could potentially be his most productive one.

   Fasano is averaging a career-high 15.7 yards per reception on his 28 catches. He needs 89 receiving yards to establish a new career high. He has 440 receiving yards. Last year, he logged a career-high of 528.

   But Fasano, who is rated the fourth most productive tight end by ProFootballFocus.com, suffered a mild concussion during practice this week and his status for Saturday's road game against the New England Patriots is in jeopardy.

   "He does have a mild concussion that he didn't have yesterday," interim coach Todd Bowles said on Thursday, a day after Fasano was held out of practice with what the team declared as a head injury. "He had a low-grade concussion. They're monitoring him right now. They're taking more tests."

   If Fasano can't pass his baseline test on Friday, which is mandated by the NFL for returning to practice and games after suffering a concussion, it's unlikely that he'll travel to New England.

   That means the Dolphins would have to either lean on his backups - Jeron Mastrud or rookies Charles Clay and Will Yeatman - to fill the void his absence creates, or play a lot of three- or four-receiver sets against the Patriots.

   Mastrud is primarily a blocker. He caught his only NFL pass (for eight yards) in his two seasons against the Chargers in Week 4.

   Yeatman, who the Dolphins claimed off waivers from the Patriots in September, was active for the first time last week against the Bills, but he played sparingly on offense.

   Clay, the team's sixth-round pick, has started nine games this season, catching 14 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown. He leads the Dolphins in yards per reception (16.5) this season. But this former Tulsa standout is more a fullback than tight end, and needs work on his in-line blocking.

   "He's made big plays all year. Injuries seem to be bugging everyone in the league," Bowles said of Fasano, who is finishing his fourth season as the Dolphins' starter. "(Jeron) Mastrud or (Will) Yeatman are just going to have to step it up if he doesn't play."

Patriots

   Usually, when an injured player faces the music and talks to the media in the Patriots' locker room, it's a good sign he'll be available to play during that upcoming weekend.

   "You can think what you want of that," said defensive back Patrick Chung, who spoke Thursday despite missing the past six games with a foot injury. "I'm feeling good and working hard."

   Chung was expected to return last week, but he still wound up sitting out despite returning to practice toward the end of the week. In fact, he's practiced sporadically throughout the healing process, yet hasn't been cleared to play by the New England coaching staff.

   For what it's worth, the Patriots have found a solid contributor in his absence, safety James Ihedigbo, who has become the quarterback of the defense by default, but the team still has too many issues in the secondary. Chung's presence is a necessity if this team has any chance of pulling it together by the end of the year.

   Things have gotten so bad the Patriots have used offensive players such as wide receiver Julian Edelman as defensive fill-ins. That's worked in the past (see Troy Brown), but it's hardly a permanent fix.

   Through it all, Chung has adhered to the team-first attitude that has permeated the locker room.

   "I've been watching us win," Chung said when asked how he's spent the past six weeks. "I wasn't a part of it, but we're winning. We're not individuals here; we're about winning."

   As for his status in Saturday's game, that remains up in the air. Chung won't give specifics, but he's practicing -- and talking, which is a step in the right direction.

   "It's a day-to-day process," Chung said. "Just keep working, keep doing whatever I have to do to get better -- sometimes it feels good, sometimes it doesn't."


PERSONNEL NEWS

Dolphins
   --WR Davone Bess is tied for sixth in the NFL in third-down receptions, bringing down 22 catches for 207 yards and two touchdowns on that critical down.
   --OG John Jerry continues to man the starting left tackle spot when Long is held out of repetitions. If Long doesn't play, Jerry will get his second start at left tackle.
   --TE Anthony Fasano was held out of practice for the second straight day because of a concussion he suffered this week.
   --TE Will Yeatman, who was with the Patriots during training camp, played his first NFL game last week and is presently working with the second team.
   --WR Brandon Marshall was limited in practice because of a left knee injury he's nursed for a couple of weeks. Marshall is tied for 16th in the NFL when it comes to producing first downs. He's contributed 43 this season.
   --OT Jake Long was limited for the second straight practice because of the back injury that prevented him from playing last Sunday. If Long travels with the team to New England he'll likely play.
   --CB Will Allen practiced fully for the second straight day despite a wrist injury he's nursing.
   --RB Reggie Bush's eight touchdowns have him tied for seventh in the AFC for most points scored by non-kickers.
   --K Dan Carpenter has the 12th most touchback kickoffs in the NFL.
   --WR Clyde Gates averages 25.1 yards per kickoff return. That has him ranked ninth best in the NFL.
   --QB Matt Moore has completed 51.8 percent of his passes on third down, and has a 69.6 passer rating on that critical down. Moore has completed 29-of-50 passes for 323 yards, throwing for one touchdown in the fourth quarter. He has a 59.0 rating in that critical quarter.

Patriots

   --S Vincent Fuller has been added to the injury report due to a forearm injury. He participated in a limited portion of practice Thursday.
   --OT Sebastian Vollmer did not practice Thursday due to back and ankle injuries and will likely miss Saturday's game.
   --LB Brandon Spikes did not practice Thursday due to a knee injury. Unless he returns to form late this week, he will probably miss Saturday's game.
   --DB Patrick Chung has only participated in limited portions of practice this week due to a foot injury, but should be able to return to the lineup Saturday.

HOT TOPIC:  Pats - Dolphins Game Thread.

MORE:
More Dolphins News: Dolphin Digest
More Patriots News:  Patriots Newswire -- Recent Stories
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