MIAMI — With Chandler Jones declared out for the Miami game because of an ankle injury and Jermaine Cunningham suspended for the next four games, the Patriots are down two pass rushers for Sunday and possibly beyond.
Undrafted rookie Justin Francis is very likely one of the players who will be called upon to fill in. The Rutgers product, who was a classmate and friend of Stephen Belichick in college, has played in five of the last six games. He had a tackle and a quarterback hit against the Jets.
“Every day is an opportunity to get better,” Francis said. “You have to be prepared, prepared for whatever happens, and by you being prepared, you’re going to help the team.
“All I’m doing right now is listening to Vince [Wilfork], listening to coach [Bill Belichick], listening to my position coach [Patrick Graham], and listening to all the older guys to guide me along the way.”
Listed at 6 feet 4 inches, 270 pounds, Francis has lined up most often at end. Cunningham was rushing from the inside in sub packages this season. Francis is willing to play whatever spot he’s asked to play.
“I like getting after the quarterback, and wherever Coach wants me to play, I’m going to play,” said Francis. “If it’s quarterback, it’s quarterback; if it’s cornerback, it’s cornerback, but I don’t think I’m going to be playing any of those positions.”
Old home week
Wes Welker is not the only current Patriot who once called Miami home. Rob Ninkovich spent a season-plus with the Dolphins in 2007 and ’08, and Mike Rivera played one game with them this season; he was in training camp with the Dolphins last year before being signed to New England’s practice squad.
Donald Thomas is a former starter for Miami. The offensive lineman was a sixth-round pick of the Dolphins in 2008, and earned the starting spot at right guard as a rookie. But he got hurt in his first career game and spent the remainder of the season on injured reserve.
Healthy in 2009, he played in all 16 games, with 12 starts, on a line that paved the way for Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown to rush for a combined 1,769 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns.
But coming out of camp in 2010, he was released.
Thomas was unemployed for more than two months before the Lions called him in November 2010, though he didn’t play in a game with them that year. He was still with Detroit last year when the Patriots came to town for a preseason game; not long after the Lions released him out of camp, New England signed him.
Things have worked out for Thomas, who has started six games thus far — one at right guard and five at left — and will likely start again Sunday with Logan Mankins out for the sixth time this year.
Their kind of month
The Patriots have won 11 straight December games; the last time they lost in this month was Dec. 6, 2009, in Miami, 22-21. In his first year as a starter, Chad Henne threw for 335 yards that day, and Davone Bess had 10 receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown. Brady has lost three December games against the Dolphins in Miami in his career: in 2009, in 2006 (21-0), and 2004 (29-28) . . . Having won his 200th game as a head coach (183 regular season and 17 playoffs) on Thanksgiving against the Jets, Belichick can tie Dan Reeves for eighth place all-time with a win Sunday. Reeves had 190 regular-season and 11 postseason wins.
Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.