Tom Brady has been practically perfect during a five-game winning streak for the New England Patriots.
Brady, a three-time Super Bowl champion, has completed 114 of his 178 pass attempts for 1,454 yards, 14 touchdowns and no interceptions since late October and looks to pad New England's lead atop the AFC East Sunday afternoon against the division-rival Miami Dolphins.
The Patriots are 8-3 this season and hold a three-game lead over the Dolphins in the AFC East. They had plenty of time to prepare for this road matchup in south Florida after whipping the division-rival New York Jets on Thanksgiving. Brady had three touchdown passes during a 35-point second quarter and finished 18-of-28 passing for 323 yards and a season-high rating of 139.4. New England scored a pair of defensive touchdowns in that period as well.
"I think we got a lot of turnovers that turned into scoring plays on defense and special teams," Brady said afterward. "Those are huge anytime you get one of those. We got two of them this week. We got three of them last week. It was a great job coming in on a short week against a team that knows us really well and playing all four quarters."
Brady, who has just five interceptions dating back to the middle of last season, has thrown a touchdown pass in 43 straight games and recorded the 52nd 300-yard passing game in his career. Brady moved past Dan Fouts and into 10th place on the all-time passing yards list, and posted his 10th 3,000-yard season. He also ran for a score against the Jets to tie his single-season career high of three set in 2011.
The Patriots need a victory Sunday at Miami to have at least nine wins in 12 straight seasons. That just shows the consistency of head coach Bill Belichick, whose team is 4-2 on the road, 4-0 against the AFC East and 7-1 in conference play this season. Belichick posted his 200th career win as well.
"There's no coach I'd ever want to play for than him. He's so consistent and as a player, I think we really appreciate that," Brady said. "He's tough, he's disciplined and that's what we need. That's the way our program is run. He expects us to play at a high level every week."
New England is first in points scored (37.0 ppg) and total yards (435.8 ypg) and will try for its third straight win on the road. The Patriots are 19-0 in the second half of the season since 2010 (3-0 in 2012).
Miami kept its playoff aspirations hanging by a thread with Sunday's 24-21 home win over the Seattle Seahawks, and improved to 5-6 on the season.
The Dolphins ended a three-game losing streak by recording 435 total yards, including 189 on the ground. But it was rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill who stepped up in crunch time, leading Miami 65 yards in six plays to set up Dan Carpenter's game-winning 43-yard field goal. Tannehill helped the Dolphins score 17 points in the fourth quarter to move within a game of .500.
Tannehill's 29-yard touchdown pass to Charles Clay evened the score at 21-21, then he orchestrated a late drive for the win.
"He showed he can do it once," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of Tannehill. "Now, he can go out and build off of this."
Miami is in a stretch of difficult games against Seattle, New England and San Francisco next week. A stingy run defense last week versus the Seahawks is really what kept the Dolphins in the game, as Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch was held to 46 yards and no touchdowns on 19 carries. On the other side, Reggie Bush had his best game in weeks with 87 yards and a score on 14 carries. Bush didn't run for more than 67 yards in the previous eight games.
"As a team, as a Miami Dolphin offense, we want to be able to run the ball well," Bush said. "Obviously, it's going to help Ryan out a lot, it's going to help the receivers out a lot and we want to be able to have that balanced attack in games."
The Dolphins will face a New England defense that is allowing 100.8 rushing yards per game and gave up 119 to the Jets. Miami wide receiver Davone Bess, who is tied with wideout Brian Hartline with 55 receptions, said running the football is the only way the offense "is going to be successful." Like Bush stated, it opens the pass attack for both Bess and Hartline. And that could carry over into this week's division battle with a Patriots team rated near the bottom in passing yards allowed (289.4 ypg).
"We've got to be able to set up the play-action off the run," Bess said. "When we're having a good day in both aspects of the game we are going to be a tough team to beat."
New England has won both meetings with Miami in each of the past two seasons and will host the Dolphins on Dec. 30. The Patriots are 8-2 in the last 10.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Look for Brady, who is fourth in the NFL with 24 TD passes, to post another 300-yard passing game Sunday. The Patriots are averaging 292.1 passing yards per game and will face a Dolphins secondary that is 26th in passing yards allowed (261.7). Brady is 14-6 in his previous 20 starts against Miami and 53-12 against the AFC East in the regular season. Six of those losses have come against the Dolphins.
With one more three-touchdown, no-interception game, Brady will tie Brett Favre (36) for second place, behind Peyton Manning (37). Brady also is 16 completions short of passing Fran Tarkenton (3,686) for ninth place on the NFL's all-time completion list.
Belichick talked about what his team may see from Miami's defense Sunday.
"They run a lot of pressure, they do a lot of different blitz zones with their inside linebackers up on the line a lot," Belichick said. "Of course, they have two very good edge players with Koa Misi and (Cameron) Wake. They have some big, physical inside players, like (Jared) Odrick and (Paul) Soliai, (Randy) Starks and a couple active linebackers, (Kevin) Burnett and (Karlos) Dansby."
Wake and Starks lead the Dolphins with 9 1/2 and 4 1/2 sacks, respectively. Don't expect Miami to be pushovers in the ground game as they are rated seventh against the rush, allowing 96.7 ypg. Pats running back Stevan Ridley needs 61 yards rushing to reach 1,000 yards. He will become the first 1,000- yard rusher since BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010.
Miami has to take advantage of New England's below average secondary, which is yielding 289.4 passing yards a game. The Patriots are 27th in total yards allowed, giving up nearly 400 yards per week (390.2).
Hartline and Bess are Tannehill's best targets. Hartline leads the team with 807 receiving yards, but hasn't reached the end zone in the previous six weeks. He has just one TD reception this season. Tight end Anthony Fasano leads the team with only three touchdown catches, so it could be tough sledding for Miami's offense.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman will most likely try to get Bush going early and mix in Daniel Thomas on Sunday. Bush got back into form versus Seattle and is aiming for just his second 100-yard rushing performance of the season.
"It's huge. We want to be a balanced team," Tannehill said. "We don't want to go out and throw it 50 times a game or run it the majority of the time either. So when you're able to gain yards on the ground in crucial situations, it helps the offense just go."
Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo leads the team in tackles with 111 and LB Brandon Spikes is right behind with 81. Mayo has logged at least 100 tackles in four of his first five seasons, and needs 10 tackles on Sunday for his sixth straight game with at least that many.
Defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones lead the Patriots with six sacks apiece. Tannehill has been sacked 20 times in 2012 and five times in the previous three games.
The odds are in New England's favor to earn its 12th straight winning season. Only San Francisco and Dallas have had longer stretches than 11 with 16 winning seasons. Brady is playing lights-out football right now and Belichick is nearly unstoppable in December, going 43-7 in the month with the Pats. In fact, the Patriots are 41-5 in December since the 2001 season. And who is mainly responsible for that? Brady, of course. Miami may keep it close early on with an improving run game. However, the Dolphins' inability to stop the pass and keep opponents from gaining yards will haunt them.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 36, Dolphins 20 7