Patriots search for another AFC East title vs. Dolphins

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( - For many years, the late-season matchup between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins has been bereft of postseason drama.

And, if any at all existed, it was typically only to determine exactly when the Patriots would clinch the AFC East Division title and to set up exactly when and where they'd begin a march to the conference championship game and beyond.

But this year - and specifically this Sunday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami - is a little different.

Not only is New England in its typical win-one-game-and-clinch-the-East mode and just a game off the pace of the AFC's top postseason seed, but the Dolphins have some significance for which it all matters as well.

Miami heads into the Week 15 game in a flat-footed tie with the Baltimore Ravens for the sixth and final conference playoff spot, though it will have to find a way to surpass the Ravens in the final few weeks because the defending Super Bowl champions hold a tiebreaker with three games left on the schedule.

The Dolphins are in the division for each of their final two games as well, visiting Buffalo next week before hosting the New York Jets - who maintain a fleeting playoff hope of their own - on Dec. 29.

"All the games are going to be tough," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "We just need to win. I don't know how you're looking at it, but we need to win. We need to take care of our business."

Miami has earned one playoff spot in 11 seasons, which came in 2008 - when Tom Brady was out for the season in New England and Brett Favre steered a heady rise and an abrupt plunge in his lone season as the QB of the Jets. The Dolphins won the East under the direction of Chad Pennington before losing the lone postseason game, 27-9, to Baltimore.

Still, though it's clearly a novelty position for the existing roster, no one else is copping to looking ahead at what might be possible either.

"All that matters is that with an excellent team coming to town, that's a full plate," Miami coach Joe Philbin said. "We're going to have to play extremely well. That's what we have to keep focused on."

The Dolphins, who'd previously maxed out at 27 points and had been at 24 or below in their other 12 games, broke through for a season-best 34 in the snow last week at Pittsburgh and face a New England defensive unit that's just 24th in the league in yardage allowed - 372.3 per week.

The Patriots have also had recent trouble getting to the quarterback - four sacks in three games - which could be a welcome respite for QB Ryan Tannehill, who's been dumped an NFL-worst 48 times.

An upright Tannehill threw three TDs last week, including a pair to tight end Charles Clay, who wound up with seven grabs for 97 yards. Clay's season-long emergence as Tannehill's go-to receiver has him 114 yards off of the franchise record established by Randy McMichael in 2004.

Clay caught five passes for 37 yards in Miami's Week 8 loss at New England.

"He's a heck of an athlete that makes small plays and big plays," Tannehill said.

Speaking of tight ends, the Patriots might be all of a sudden envious of Clay's prowess.

New England lost Rob Gronkowski, a vital element of their recent offensive success, to a knee injury last week against Cleveland and will be without him for the rest of the season and playoffs.

He'd played in just seven games after missing the first six following recurring issues with his back and forearm.

"I'd like to think there's going to be some carry-over there, not only (after) the first six weeks of the season, but the entire training camp as well," coach Bill Belichick said. "That's the way we practiced and played most of the year."

Brady will surely long for Gronkowski's presence come game time, but he's hardly conceding either.

"It's disappointing to lose anybody, but we've faced that before this year and at different times, so I'd say at least we're adjusted to it a little bit," Brady said. "We still have confidence that we can go out and win games."

The division title New England can clinch Sunday would be their fifth in a row and 10th in 11 years, minus only the aforementioned run that came with Pennington in Miami and Matt Cassel replacing Brady. A playoff berth would be clinched even with a loss, provided Baltimore loses or ties in Detroit on Monday.

The Patriots scored 13 points in the final 61 seconds last week to overcome Cleveland, 27-26, and add another chapter to what's been a heart-stopping run of 2013 success.

A late-November defeat of the Broncos came after digging a 24-0 hole and a defeat of Houston a week later came courtesy of two Stephen Gostkowski field goals in the final quarter as well.

"Sometimes the stars align in your favor," special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "We've been real blessed this year to have the ball bounce our way and we're just going to go with it. We're not going to question the why of it."

Against Miami in Week 8, New England trailed, 17-3, at the half before scoring the game's final 24 points.

Brady threw for just 116 yards on 13-of-22 passing. The yards were his fewest in a full game since 2006, also against the Dolphins.

"They've got a really good scheme. There are really no easy plays out there, so we've got to go out there and earn it," Brady said. "Hopefully we can follow it up so we're most prepared, and then go down and try to win a really important game."


Changing Targets

There's no question that the renewed absence of Gronkowski from the Patriots offense will be a blow. Not only was a he a giant body when it came to blocking, but his athleticism - especially in the red zone - made him as close as there is to an impossibility when it came to coverage assignments.

Still, it's not as if Brady is out of choices. He'll be helped by the recent emergence of running back Shane Vereen, who established a franchise record for running back catches last week by hauling in 12 passes for 153 yards.

Two if By Ground

The Dolphins midseason struggles, in addition to the myriad off-field issues, were caused in some part by a recurring inability to ruin the ball - which then led to issues keeping Tannehill off the turf.

That's changed a bit lately and it's yielded victories. Miami's last two wins have seen them gain 125 and 181 rush yards, respectively, and the latter total corresponded with the highest scoreboard output of the season - 34 points. Daniel Thomas is coming off a season-best 105 yards (on 16 carries) and New England is second-worst in the league - 135.8 yards per week - at stopping the run.


Those who expected the Dolphins to improve this season cited an improved running game, the maturing of Tannehill and a sound - if not star-laden - defense.

Those things were evident in the three-game streak to open the season, and they've returned for the two games they've won recently against the Jets and Pittsburgh. The quality of opposition takes a big jump this week, but the foundational items will allow for the rally to continue.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Dolphins 28, Patriots 24