(SportsNetwork.com) - Three weeks ago, it looked like a sure-fire matchup of the two best teams in the AFC East. Now, it looks more like the Adversity Bowl.
Regardless of how it's labeled, the Sunday afternoon Week 8 contest between the host New England Patriots and the visiting Miami Dolphins is one that features a pair of teams growing increasingly desperate for a victory.
The Patriots enter while still holding their accustomed spot atop the division, but that status got an unexpected challenge last week when they dropped a 30-27 overtime decision to the upstart New York Jets, who lurk a game behind in the standings.
Miami, meanwhile, was 3-0 to start the season but has since plummeted back to the East's middle ground - in this case, third place in a four-team division - with three straight losses.
New England hasn't lost two in a row in the division since 2006, when it was beaten consecutively by the Jets and the Dolphins. The Patriots nonetheless finished 12-4, won the East and advanced to the AFC Championship Game that year before losing to the Indianapolis Colts.
Against the Jets last week, Tom Brady and Co. churned out just 295 total yards, marking the third time in seven games they'd been held under 300 and the second time this season it occurred against New York.
Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes - 22-of-46 - for the third time as well and did not throw a TD pass.
He hadn't had a sub-50 percent game in the last three seasons.
All this occurred with previously injured tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field for the first time after he'd missed the first six games while recovering from offseason surgeries. He caught eight passes for 114 yards while Brady targeted him 17 times - indicating a clearer comfort level with him than with any of the Patriots' other young receivers.
Miami has never beaten the Patriots in New England with Brady as the primary QB.
"You've got to be able to spread it around, there's no question about that," Brady said. "It just happens to be if a guy is a particular read on a play and he is open, you let it rip, whoever it is. Gronk, when he is on the field, he is obviously a part of the reads. Whether he is the first read, the second read or the third read."
One game in, Gronkowski is already the team's fifth-leading receiver. He caught two passes for 42 yards, including a 23-yard TD, in a Week 17 game against Miami last season, won by the Patriots, 28-0.
"You always get the jitters the first game back and everything. It's just football now, Gronkowski said. "This is my fourth year. I've got to just go out there and do what I've got to do, listen to the coaches, listen to the players and just practice to the best of my ability so I can be ready for Sunday, and keep a rhythm going every single week."
Perhaps a more glaring concern for New England is the defense, which allowed 30 points for the first time this season and to a Jets team that had scored 30 just once in its last 16 games.
New York held the ball for 46 minutes, 13 seconds and Jets running back Chris Ivory went for 104 yards on 34 carries to become the first triple-digit rusher against the Patriots in 22 games.
The Jets' run-heavy attack took full advantage of the absences of injured tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (shoulder), both of whom are out for the season. Also absent Sunday were cornerback Aqib Talib with a hip problem and tackle Tommy Kelly with a knee injury.
Talib and Kelly are questionable for Sunday, and the Patriots reached for a healthy body this week when they re-signed Andre Carter, a former Pro Bowl defensive end who was released by the Oakland Raiders just before the start of the regular season.
"He's a hard-working guy that's given us great leadership in the past and is a good teammate," New England coach Bill Belichick said.
In spite of the gashing by the Jets, the Patriots still sit fifth in the league in scoring defense - 18.1 points per game - and face a Dolphins team struggling to rediscover the continuity it had while sweeping Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta in Weeks 1, 2 and 3.
"We're in a tough spot right now," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "We have to face the adversity and grow from it. There are two ways we can go. We can tank it, or we can turn it around."
Tannehill, who was limited at Wednesday's practice with a sore shoulder, has been sacked a league-high 26 times, including twice last week in a loss to Buffalo. His two interceptions and lost fumble against the Bills increased his season turnover total to 11 - fourth in the NFL.
Miami made a transaction designed to improve the QB's protection up from on Monday, acquiring left tackle Bryant McKinnie from the Baltimore Ravens.
McKinnie has started 152 games in parts of 12 seasons with Minnesota and Baltimore. He was a Pro Bowl player in 2009.
"The decision-making has to improve," coach Joe Philbin said. "And our protection at times has to improve."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Pounding the rock.
One of the glaring absences from the Miami attack through its initial six games has been a quality run game. The Dolphins seemed re-committed to advancing on the ground while taking on Buffalo last week and got 60 yards from Daniel Thomas and 48 more from Lamar Miller.
New England saw the Jets run the ball 52 times in New York's win last week, which could provide a blueprint for Patriots foes going forward.
A better Brady.
The New England QB is on his way to the Hall of Fame for his career-long body of work, but chances are his induction video won't include many highlights from 2013.
Instead, as mentioned earlier, Brady has fallen off his prodigious past - thanks in part to inexperience and injury in the receiving corps to be sure, but also due to some accuracy concerns from the passer himself. He'll need to be on point under duress against a strong Miami pass rush.
With Brady in something of a recent funk, it's pretty tempting to suggest Miami - with a moderately passable run game, along with a high-end receiver in Mike Wallace - is in position to prolong the Patriots' miseries.
However, Tannehill himself seems in a tailspin of his own and New England is typically not the place to work out such kinks.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 25, Dolphins 22