In role reversal two decades in the making, Dolphins must avoid Patriots trap

MIAMI GARDENS — For the better part of the past two decades, many of the Miami Dolphins’ biggest games were against the New England Patriots.

But they were far from the biggest games for the Patriots all those years.

Example A: The “Miami Miracle” of 2018. The epic December victory on the final play — with Kenyan Drake taking a lateral and scooting past tight end Rob Gronkowski, in on defense, for the walk-off touchdown — will forever live in Dolphins lore. But Miami didn’t win again that season and missed the playoffs. The Patriots later won the Super Bowl.

But as much as New England coach Bill Belichick and former quarterback Tom Brady guarded against playing down to the middling Dolphins as they competed for Super Bowls year in and year out, a charged-up Dolphins team often rose to the occasion, challenging the mighty Patriots and, several times, pulled off large upsets.

Consider this: Brady was 8-10 in road games against the Dolphins in his Patriots tenure. New England was a perennial power all those years, while Miami only made three playoff appearances since he became the Patriots’ starter — once in the 2008 season when Brady was lost for the year due to a Week 1 injury.

When the Dolphins face the Patriots in a 1 p.m. kickoff Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium, a game in which they will sport their beloved throwback uniforms in all white, the tables are turned.

The Dolphins are 5-2, leading the AFC East and a team with Super Bowl aspirations. The Patriots are 2-5 and, not long ago at the start of October, had back-to-back losses by a combined 69 points.

Miami’s looking for a season sweep. The Dolphins have won five of the past six against the AFC East rival Patriots, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is 5-0 against them.

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Miami is favored by 9 1/2 points — something that would’ve been unheard of the past two decades. In fact, there were several instances where New England had that type of point spread against the Dolphins.

In the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s “Dolphins Deep Dive” podcast recorded Tuesday, the question came up of if it’s a trap game for Miami.

How far we’ve come. Imagine those words ever being uttered in this rivalry any other year since the turn of the millennium.

To add to that, this seemingly nondescript matchup with the Patriots is sandwiched between meetings with the two teams in last year’s Super Bowl. The Dolphins are coming off a loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia last Sunday night. On Monday evening, they travel abroad to Germany for a week of practice in Frankfurt ahead of their international showdown with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.

This would be the natural spot to fall into a lull, but Miami players know not to let that happen against the Patriots — or think about their flight to catch the next day.

“I haven’t even packed,” Dolphins tackle Austin Jackson said Thursday. “It’s irresponsible to try to plan for the future without being present now. Every team’s good. You can lose to any team.”

This is especially true as New England is coming off an upset win over the Buffalo Bills, 29-25, last Sunday. So the Patriots carry momentum now not long after a 38-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys Oct. 1 and 34-0 defeat against the New Orleans Saints Oct. 8.

“I just really have high regard for teams that finish the season better than when they started,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said Friday. “I see on tape a team that’s better than when they started, so I know what type of work goes into that.”

And the Patriots defense gave the Dolphins trouble in the Sept. 17 Sunday night game in Foxborough. Belichick’s defense held star receiver Tyreek Hill, who is good to go after missing practice early in the week with a hip injury, to a season-low 40 yards. His unit always has to be respected, even as it will be without elite pass rusher Matt Judon and standout rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez on Sunday.

“From a defensive standpoint, what’s very unique about this unit is they have concrete fundamentals and principles that every player on the defense shares,” McDaniel said. “You can see consistencies in how they defeat blocks, from corner to safety to edge player to 4-technique.”

He said their offense is “evolving” with third-year quarterback Mac Jones showing improvement off his performance against Buffalo — and winning touchdown to former Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki.

“I think Mac is seeing the field,” McDaniel said. “They are a team that I know that our team isn’t taking lightly and a team that will take advantage of those who do take them lightly.”