Dolphins-Patriots Preview

The New England Patriots should have a pretty good idea whether

their regular-season finale has any significance in the AFC playoff

picture before the opening kickoff.

Either way, it may mean something to their confidence heading

into the postseason.

After a pair of uninspiring starts, the Patriots look to produce

a better first half of football Sunday when they host the Miami


New England (11-4) fell behind lowly Jacksonville 10-0 in the

first 10 minutes last weekend. Although the AFC East champions

recovered for a 23-16 victory, their slow start the previous week

may have cost them a bye in the playoffs.

The Patriots trailed San Francisco 31-3 at home Dec. 16,

rallying to tie the score but eventually losing 41-34. That leaves

them one game behind both Houston and Denver going into Week


“We’ve got to do a better job,” Tom Brady said Monday during his

weekly appearance on WEEI radio. “We’ve got some pretty important

weeks of football ahead, and that’s when we really need to play our


The Patriots, who hold tiebreakers over the Texans and Broncos

after beating both, could still claim one of the top two seeds in

the AFC if one of those teams loses Sunday. Houston plays at

Indianapolis early in the afternoon.

That result won’t affect the Colts, who are locked into the No.

5 seed, but New England will still be watching the scoreboard.

Denver is heavily favored at home against Kansas City, with that

game happening at the same time the Patriots face Miami.

Even if the chance of a bye is remote, New England may need a

win to secure the AFC’s No. 3 spot if Baltimore beats Cincinnati

early. The third-place team will host the Bengals next weekend,

while the No. 4 seed faces Indianapolis.

All of those scenarios, including the chance of a short week

before a Saturday wild-card game, could affect coach Bill

Belichick’s personnel decisions Sunday.

“You can’t be totally oblivious to the possibilities that exist

out there,” Belichick said. “There are quite a few possibilities.

It’s really hard to be specific on something like that when there

are so many possibilities.”

There’s a possibility New England could have one of its most

important offensive weapons back Sunday. Rob Gronkowski hasn’t

played since breaking his arm late in a 59-24 win over the Colts on

Nov. 18, although he still has twice as many receiving touchdowns

(10) as any teammate.

The Patriots’ top-ranked offense looked sluggish in

Jacksonville, with Brady throwing a pair of interceptions and the

team converting a season-low 23 first downs. New England has gone 6

for 27 on third down over the last two weeks.

Brady blamed the performance against the Jaguars largely on

“self-inflicted errors,” and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels

seemed to agree.

“Certainly, (we) never really got into the game where we felt

like we were going to string together a bunch of drives,” McDaniels


Even though the Patriots have won five straight against the

Dolphins, it’s far from certain that they’ll be able to dominate

Sunday. They gained a season-low 321 yards in a 23-16 win at Miami

on Dec. 2, and they trailed 17-0 at halftime against the Dolphins

at home last season before rallying to win 27-24.

Miami (7-8) would love to avoid a fourth straight losing season

and finish with a third consecutive victory. Coach Joe Philbin’s

team has allowed 13 total points in its last two games, home

victories over Jacksonville and Buffalo.

“We’re building a foundation that is going to deliver excellent

football teams here in the future,” Philbin said. “And it takes


Rookie Ryan Tannehill has gone four straight games without an

interception and has thrown four TD passes over the last two weeks.

The Dolphins also totaled 362 rushing yards in their back-to-back

wins, and Reggie Bush needs only 40 more for his second straight

1,000-yard season.

“Our offense is really getting into a rhythm,” Bush said. “We

hit a low point midway through the season where we were kind of

struggling to run that ball, and I think that really hurt us. I

feel like now we’ve kind of hit that stride where everybody is on

the same page, our chemistry is good, our defense is playing well,

and it feels good.”

The Patriots may want to get a few key defensive players some

rest for the playoffs. Linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee, ankle)

missed last week’s game and cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) was

extremely limited.