Danny Amendola
Patriots-Dolphins Preview
Danny Amendola

Patriots-Dolphins Preview

Published Dec. 30, 2015 3:29 p.m. ET

New England still controls its own destiny in clinching home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs, but the alarming part might be that it hasn't already been wrapped up.

Week 17 holds relevance for the Patriots, if only because of a questionable decision in their latest loss, though it seems unlikely Sunday's visit to Miami will hinge on a coin toss.

The Patriots (12-3) have already clinched a first-round bye, but Denver can still pass them for the top seed with a home victory over four-win San Diego and a New England loss. If that were to happen, Bill Belichick's decision to kick off to begin overtime of last Sunday's 26-20 loss to the New York Jets could again fall under scrutiny, but what might be more concerning than their possession decisions is that they head into the regular-season finale having lost three of five after a 10-0 start.

Belichick's focus is more basic than clinching any particular seed.


"In the end, you need to play well," said Belichick, whose team had home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs in its last three trips to the Super Bowl and lost in the AFC title game in Denver in 2013.

"Whoever we have to play, wherever we have to play them, whatever it is it is. But I think having a good team and playing well is more important than who or where you play."

Injuries have played a big part in a slowing offense over the past five games, and things were possibly at their worst against New York. The Patriots matched a season low for points and had their fewest total yards (284). After averaging 32.3 points and 412.4 yards over the undefeated start, New England has dipped to 26.4 and 334.2 over the 2-3 span. It was the failure to move the ball that made Belichick elect to kick off in overtime with hopes of playing the field-position game.

Top rushers LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis are done for the season, and Danny Amendola again joined fellow wideout Julian Edelman on the sideline last week. Amendola (knee) has missed two of the last five games, and Edelman has been out for six with a broken foot.

That's left Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin as Tom Brady's starting receivers as he pursues his second 5,000-yard passing season. Brady is 364 yards shy, and he's only reached that mark once this year in Week 2. It's unsurprisingly not at the forefront of his thoughts as the team tries to work through its recent circumstances.

"The only way to really improve is to go out there and practice and do things at a very competitive level so you can really see how things shake out on a practice field before you get to the game on Sunday," Brady said. "You only have three opportunities a week. So you try to gain confidence in everybody by putting everybody in a position to go out there and see if they can do it and compete hard and develop some confidence in what we're trying to accomplish."

Rob Gronkowski has remained reliable and in at least one way more effective than years past. His 16.5 yards per catch is the highest mark of his career by 1.3 yards, and no tight end has completed a season with an average that high since Jacksonville's Ernest Wilford in 2005 (16.6).

But there's only so much he and Brady can team up on, and a more consistent rushing attack could be the key to sustaining drives. In two games since Blount went down, the Patriots have averaged 3.25 yards per carry and totaled 156 on the ground without a touchdown. Brandon Bolden was limited to 30 yards on nine carries against the Jets, while newcomer Steven Jackson had 15 on seven.

Even with the inconsistencies, the Dolphins (5-10), particularly in their current state, just don't seem like the right team to keep things interesting. Last Sunday's 18-12 home loss to Indianapolis followed defeats to San Diego and the New York Giants, and their only wins over a 2-7 span have come against Baltimore and Philadelphia.

That slump started with a 36-7 loss in New England as Brady threw for 356 yards and four TDs. The Patriots lead the series 9-2 since the start of 2010 with a 14.5 scoring margin, though the two losses came in their last two visits to Miami.

Miami did limit Indianapolis to 268 yards, but that's part of a 400.4 average dating to the loss in New England.

Things have been stagnant offensively for that entire time. The Dolphins haven't scored more than 24 points since a 44-26 win over Houston on Oct. 25, averaging 15.9 points and 297.0 yards.

The health of Ryan Tannehill is unsurprisingly in question after taking a season-high six sacks against the Colts.

"It's frustrating not winning," said Tannehill, dealing with a left leg injury. "I could care less about getting hit if we're winning, you know? It's not easy to win when the quarterback is getting hit, so that's something we want to fix."

New England's 48 sacks are one off Denver's league lead.


Danny Amendola
Get more from Danny Amendola Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more