(Eds: With AP Photos.)By HOWARD ULMANAP Sports Writer
The New England Patriots get their second chance this season to clinch the AFC East title. The Miami Dolphins can ruin that for the second straight Sunday.
With the way the Dolphins have been surging, the Patriots very well may have to wait even longer.
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Miami’s 34-28 win over Pittsburgh last Sunday was its fourth in six games and denied New England the division crown even though it beat Cleveland 27-26.
Next up for the Patriots is a trip to Miami where they can wrap up their 10th AFC East championship in 11 years with a win or a tie.
”That’s our goal,” quarterback Tom Brady said. ”Not every week do you get to play for a championship, so we do this week, and it’s a big week for us.”
To succeed, the Patriots (10-3) must avoid losing to the Dolphins (7-6) in a division matchup. So they haven’t talked about clinching, defensive end Andre Carter said Thursday.
”It’s a very important game and whatever happens after that is great.” he said. ”But our main objective is just to be successful and put together a great football game for four quarters.”
They haven’t been doing that for a while.
The Patriots have trailed at halftime in five of their last six games, starting with a 17-3 deficit against the Dolphins. But they’ve won five of those games, none more impressively than last Sunday with Brady’s two touchdown passes in the last 61 seconds, helped by the team’s first successful onside kick in 18 years.
”There’s a lot less margin of error,” Brady said. ”You make one mistake and you’re down 12 points with not a lot of time left. You make one mistake, that’s the game. So you just put a lot of pressure on yourself to do it. You’d like to have some cushion there because it’s not always going to turn out where you can be perfect that last three or four minutes of the game.”
Turnovers are a major reason the Patriots have fallen behind. In the last six games, they have seven in the first half and just three in the second. And in the fourth quarter, they gave the ball away just once in that span.
The Dolphins’ biggest problem in the last six weeks surfaced just after their previous game against New England.
Tackle Jonathan Martin left the team the next day and said he was harassed daily by teammates, including guard Richie Incognito, who was suspended as part of the bullying scandal.
Since that 27-17 loss, Miami has climbed into the wild-card race and could make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
”That’s great for them to kind of get past those setbacks,” Patriots fullback James Develin said. ”Every team has their individual kind of things they have to get through as a team, so I’m not surprised they bounced back the way they did.”
The Dolphins are playing a lot better, with their only two losses in the last six games by three and four points.
”They’ve made a lot of improvements. Despite the things that happened earlier in the season they’ve found a way to bounce back,” Carter said. ”They definitely have the momentum coming into this game.”
Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 52.4 percent of his passes against New England, his third straight game below 53 percent. In the next game he completed 71.4 percent and hasn’t been below 60 percent since then.
Tannehill is ”still moving well, still mobile,” Carter said. ”That’s something, especially when it comes to rushing the quarterback, that you have to keep in mind, be aware of rush lanes.”
If the Patriots lose, they can clinch the division title the following Sunday, also on the road against an improving team, the Baltimore Ravens. That would be New England’s 11th AFC East championship in Bill Belichick’s 14 seasons as coach.
”That’ll be great,” Develin said. ”It’s a testament to this organization. This is a special organization and it’s been successful through the years so hopefully we can get that for coach.”
Belichick, though, just wants to win one game.
”If you dwell on the past,” he said, ”you’re not going to play well in the future.”