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
After a pair of uninspiring starts, the Patriots look to produce a
better first half of football Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins.
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 17.
"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 best."
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
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
"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
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
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 said.
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 time."
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
needs only 40 more for his second straight 1,000-yard
"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.
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