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Resurgent Dolphins in ultimate TNF test vs. Pats

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DAVIE, Fla. — The Miami Dolphins, surging with confidence and competitive juices since interim coach Dan Campbell took over three weeks ago, get their biggest test of this revived season in a Thursday night visit to New England against the undefeated, defending Super Bowl champion Patriots.

The Dolphins (3-3) won-back-to-back games in impressive fashion under Campbell, hammering Tennessee, 38-10, and pounding Houston, 44-26.

And if they have any hopes of clawing back into the playoff picture, they need to win this pivotal AFC East matchup.

These are good times for the Dolphins, whose overhaul has been both physical and mental.

The running game, led by running back Lamar Miller, is revitalized. He has 288 yards rushing in the last two weeks.

The passing game, led by quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wide receivers Rishard Matthews and Jarvis Landry, is a big-play machine, producing three touchdowns of 50 or more yards last week in the first half alone.

And the defense, led by end Cam Wake, strong safety Reshad Jones and tackle Ndamukong Suh, is a disruptive, game-changing unit.

But the players mostly credit the muscular, high-energy Campbell, the former tight ends coach, for the turnaround.

“Dan’s enthusiasm and passion for the game, his energy and competitive drive is just contagious,” Tannehill said, “and it’s transferred over to the team and we’ve been really playing that way lately.”

New England (6-0) presents a different set of challenges, however.

The Patriots average a NFL-best 35.5 points per game and quarterback Tom Brady (16 touchdowns, one interception, 113.2 passer rating) is having a phenomenal season.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount put a lot of pressure on defenses.

On the other side of the ball, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for taking away something offenses do best and making them adjust on the fly, and that’ll probably happen again.

No one is sure how the new-look Dolphins and their coaching staff will react if that scenario unfolds.

For Miami, Thursday’s game is about a lot of things — getting back into the playoff picture, keeping their confidence and momentum going, showing the real Dolphins are the team of the last two weeks and not the team of the first four weeks, etc.

But Campbell thinks it’s mostly about the players, and not the spark he’s brought since being named interim coach.

“Once you light a fire, then you can’t put it out as long as the players continue to feed that fire, and that’s what you’re looking for,” he said.

“That’s why the team we’re getting ready to play, the New England Patriots, has been so good. Of course they’ve got good players, smart players, but also they have passion, they play with passion, and that’s what we’ve got to get to.”

SERIES HISTORY: 97th regular season meeting. Miami leads series, 52-44. The Patriots won the last meeting, 41-13. Before that, Miami had won back-to-back games against New England in the 2014 opener, and a 24-20 decision in December 2013. The Patriots, however, have a six-game win streak over Miami at Gillette Stadium.

GAMEPLAN: Miami must have its defense play its best game of the season against New England, which averages a NFL-best 35.5 points per game.

There’s an outside chance the Dolphins, who have averaged 41 points per game the last two weeks, could outscore the Patriots, but it’s doubtful.

The best plan for Miami is to use its defensive line to disrupt New England quarterback Tom Brady, and be sure to tackle so the Patriots don’t rack up lots of YAC (yards after catch). An interception or two would be greatly helpful.

Offensively, the Dolphins must run the ball effectively and have quarterback Ryan Tannehill continue to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers as quickly as possible.

Miami would love to impose its will on New England, but most likely this game will come down to how well Miami reacts to what New England does.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Miami run game, led by RB Lamar Miller, vs. New England’s run defense, which is 16th in the NFL. Miller, who had an 85-yard run last week against Houston, has helped Miami establish a physical presence at the beginning of games.

The Miami offensive line has also done a good job of blasting open holes. If New England limits Miami’s running game, almost all hope of a Dolphins victory is eliminated. This is a crucial matchup.

–Miami defensive line, led by DE Cam Wake, vs. New England QB Tom Brady, who has a slew of dangerous weapons.

Wake has six sacks, including three strip/sacks, in the last two weeks. He had a critical strip/sack against Brady two years ago in a Miami victory. Brady can choose among TE Rob Gronkowski and WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, which, on the surface, outweighs the Dolphins’ secondary. So getting a pass rush on Brady, led by Wake, who is among the hottest defenders in the NFL right now, is essential.


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