Patriots-Dolphins Preview

It’s not that the New England Patriots are trying to sugarcoat

the loss of Rob Gronkowski, but they feel fortunate to have

succeeded in this situation before.

With a chance to clinch the AFC East on Sunday against the host

Miami Dolphins, they are doing their best to take it in stride.

Gronkowski suffered a serious knee injury in last week’s 27-26

comeback win over Cleveland and will be out for the rest of the

season, playing in just seven games after missing the first six due

to back and forearm issues.

New England (10-3) went 5-1 in the star tight end’s absence.

“I’d like to think there’s going to be some carry-over there,

not only (from) the first six weeks of the season, but the entire

training camp as well,” coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s the way

we practiced and played most of the year.”

Tom Brady surely will miss one of his favorite targets, but he

isn’t going to sulk over Gronkowski’s latest injury.

“I mean, it’s disappointing to lose anybody, but we’ve faced

that before this year and at different times, so I’d say at least

we’re adjusted to it a little bit,” Brady said. “We still have

confidence that we can go out and win games.”

A win or tie Sunday would give the Patriots their fifth straight

division title and 10th in 11 seasons, and they’d clinch a playoff

berth regardless of the result if Baltimore doesn’t win in Detroit

on Monday night.

Victories haven’t come easy lately, though.

New England’s three-game winning streak hasn’t been for the

faint of heart. It overcame a 24-point deficit to beat Denver 34-31

in overtime Nov. 24, then rallied from 10 down at halftime before

Stephen Gostkowski kicked a pair of 53-yard field goals in the

final 7:16 for a 34-31 win over Houston on Dec. 1.

The Patriots scored 13 points and recovered an onside kick in

the final 61 seconds last week.

“Sometimes the stars align in your favor,” special teams captain

Matthew Slater said. “We’ve been real blessed this year to have the

ball bounce our way and we’re just going to go with it. We’re not

going to question the why of it.”

New England had to rally from a 17-3 halftime deficit against

the Dolphins in the first meeting Oct. 27, scoring 24 unanswered

points to earn its seventh straight victory in the series.

Brady finished 13 of 22 for 116 yards – his fewest when playing

a full game since throwing for 78 against the Dolphins on Dec. 10,

2006 – and he’s expecting Miami to present another tough

challenge.

“They’ve got a really good scheme. There are really no easy

plays out there, so we’ve got to go out there and earn it,” Brady

said. “Hopefully we can follow it up so we’re most prepared, and

then go down and try to win a really important game.”

This contest may be more important for the Dolphins (7-6), who

are tied with Baltimore for the AFC’s final playoff spot. They’ve

won back-to-back games after last week’s wild 34-28 victory in

snowy Pittsburgh.

After this game, Miami visits Buffalo next week before closing

its schedule at home against the New York Jets on Dec. 29.

“All the games are going to be tough,” cornerback Brent Grimes

said. “We just need to win. I don’t know how you’re looking at it,

but we need to win. We need to take care of our business.”

The Dolphins have been to the playoffs once in the last 11

seasons, but coach Joe Philbin is refusing to look ahead as

well.

“All that matters is that with an excellent team coming to town,

that’s a full plate,” Philbin said. “We’re going to have to play

extremely well. That’s what we have to keep focused on.”

Miami set a season high for points scored despite the tough

conditions last week, and it will go up against a Patriots defense

that ranks 24th in total defense at 372.3 yards per game. New

England has just four sacks in the last three games, but the

Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill has been sacked a league-high 48

times.

Tannehill threw a career high-tying three touchdown passes last

week – two going to Charles Clay, who finished with seven catches

for 97 yards.

Clay has emerged as one of Tannehill’s top targets, and his 678

yards are 114 short of breaking Randy McMichael’s single-season

franchise record for a tight end set in 2004.

“He’s a heck of an athlete that makes small plays and big

plays,” Tannehill said.

Clay had five catches for 37 yards in the last meeting for

Miami, which hasn’t beaten New England since a 22-21 home win Dec.

6, 2009.