The New England Patriots still have designs on a first- round playoff bye and will try to finish the regular season on an upbeat note when they host the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
The Patriots have taken the AFC East and can still garner the No. 1 seed in the conference with a win and losses by Houston and Denver in Week 17. The Patriots can also garner the bye with a win coupled with a setback by either the Texans or Broncos. A loss, however, could result in the Pats tumbling all the way to the fourth spot.
When it takes the field in Week 17 New England will be trying to overcome its second straight lackluster performance, albeit a winning one when the team took care of business, 23-16, against lowly Jacksonville last Sunday.
Tom Brady shook off a shaky start to pass for 267 yards and two scores on 24- of-41 passing to offset a pair of interceptions in the victory. Brady also tied Johnny Unitas for second place on the NFL all-time list by throwing a touchdown pass in his 47th straight game.
Wes Welker posted 88 yards and one score on 10 receptions and Stevan Ridley added 84 yards on 18 carries for the Patriots.
"We came out way too flat and it showed," Welker admitted. "We have to do a better job of starting fast, keep doing what we've been doing and take control of games."
Danny Woodhead added a TD catch, while Patrick Chung recorded a pair of late picks which twice derailed Jacksonville attempts to tie the game.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, kept their slim playoff hopes alive last Sunday with a 24-10 win over the Buffalo Bills. That window was slammed shut only a few minutes later, however, when the Cincinnati Bengals ended he faint postseason chances with a last-second win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Dolphins needed to finish in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh at 8-8 to claim the AFC's final wild card spot. A Pittsburgh win would have kept Miami alive heading into this week's regular-season finale.
Instead, the Bengals wrapped up the last spot and 2012 will prove to be the fourth straight non-playoff season for the Dolphins, who prevailed last Sunday thanks in large part to three touchdowns from Reggie Bush.
Bush ran for 65 yards with a touchdown on 19 carries and caught four passes for 42 yards with two scores in the victory. Ryan Tannehill completed 13-of-25 passes for 130 yards and added 44 yards on the ground. Miami finished with 182 yards rushing, led by rookie Lamar Miller's 73 yards on 10 attempts.
"Everyone was focused on getting a win because that's what we could control," Bush said. "We got the job done."
Bush now needs just 40 more yards for his second straight 1,000-yard season.
"It's a nice barometer that's used," Miami coach Joe Philbin said of reaching 1,000. "It's been used in football for a long, long time and certainly an accomplishment the whole unit should take pride in, no question about it."
The Patriots have won five straight in the series and nine of the past 11, including a 23-16 win in south Florida back on Dec. 2 when Welker caught 12 balls for 103 yards and a TD and Ridley added 71 yards rushing and another TD. Miami still leads the all-time series by a 49-42 advantage, though.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Patriots' high-powered offense has looked pedestrian over the past couple of weeks, converting just 6-of-27 third downs in that span. The group could get a big lift with the return of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who hasn't played since breaking his arm late in a 59-24 win over Indianapolis on Nov. 18.
"Yes, definitely making progress," Gronkowski told reporters on Wednesday. "Every single week I'm feeling better, doing better every day. I'm working with the trainers, whatever they have me doing, just every day trying to improve on the day before."
Although only playing in 10 games, Gronkowski was named to the AFC's Pro Bowl team on Wednesday and still leads all tight ends with 10 touchdown receptions. His presence on the field serves as a security blanket for Brady, who understands Gronk is just too big and strong for most safeties and far quicker than most linebackers.
"We'll see how he is," Pats coach Bill Belichick said when asked if Gronkowski was ready to return. "He did more last week than he did the week before.We'll take it day to day and we'll make decisions day to day based on where he's at. He's moving along, not ready yet. We'll take it day to day and see how it goes."
Whether it's familiarity or something else the Dolphins tend to play the Pats tough. Miami held New England to a season-low 321 yards in the Sunshine State on Dec. 2, and actually was leading them 17-0 at halftime in Foxboro last season before faltering.
The key to stopping Brady, who is 9-1 as a starter versus Miami at home, is putting heat on him. Pro Bowl selection Cameron Wake will certainly do his part but he has had few compliments this season.
Miami is desperately trying to avoid a fourth straight losing season while playing spoiler against a Pats team looking for a bye. A win against New England on the road would be a signature one for a first year coach looking for some swagger as he enters his first offseason.
"We're going to have enough to play well and defeat the New England Patriots, not derail (something) that's beyond our control anyway," Philbin said when asked about the Pats seeding. "We're focused on playing as well as we possibly can."
The Patriots enter this week's contest with a 5-0 record in AFC East games and are aiming to finish their slate of divisional games without a loss for the second time in team history. With plenty left to play for it's unlikely Brady and Co. will ease up on the gas against Miami.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 30, Dolphins 17