Pats aim to clinch AFC East

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

(SportsNetwork.com) - It's not as if the Miami Dolphins haven't had chances.

Indeed, the inhabitants of South Florida found themselves in prime playoff positioning amid a muddled AFC standings list following a Week 13 defeat of the New York Jets, but ceded that spot with a 15-point home loss to Baltimore six days later and now face a long road to get back to January competition.

Miami hasn't seen the postseason in six years, and in order to do so this year will have to begin with success in the unlikeliest of situations - on a Week 15 visit to AFC East-leading New England.

The Dolphins have lost three of their last five to fall to 7-6, and even with three schedule-closing victories and 10 overall wins, might still be left out. But that doesn't mean Joe Philbin is a non-believer.

"I have a lot of faith and confidence in these guys," Philbin said. "We've got a huge challenge this week going up to New England. I told them in the locker room, we're going to find out a lot this week."

Miami's first 10 opponents managed an average of 302.5 total yards against a consistently solid defensive unit. But that early good fortune has recently evaporated, with the last three foes - Baltimore, New York and Denver - averaging 407.7 total yards, while combining to shred the Dolphins for 661 rushing yards. That's the most the franchise has ever allowed over three games.

The Ravens finished with 447 total yards last week, and cameras caught Philbin on the receiving end of shouts from defensive tackle Jared Odrick along the sidelines in the late stages of the game.

Not surprisingly, Odrick chalked up the outburst to heat-of-battle frustration.

"Any time you don't play up to the standards we like to uphold, yeah, you're upset," he said. "Everybody is upset."

Injuries have also begun occurring at inopportune times.

The Dolphins will play the rest of the season without safety Louis Delmas after he injured his right knee against Baltimore, though cornerback Cortland Finnegan insists he'll return - though he's still labeled questionable - after missing four straight games with an ankle problem.

Also MIA lately has been the Miami running game, which churned out 191 yards while defeating the Patriots, 33-20, in Week 1. The Dolphins averaged 137.3 rush yards for their first eight games, but have logged just 81.8 per week in five games since.

Meanwhile, New England just keeps winning.

The Patriots have won five straight AFC East titles since Miami's 2008 incursion, and a defeat of the Dolphins this week will mean a 12th divisional crown in 14 seasons since Tom Brady's arrival.

New England dropped a 26-21 decision to Green Bay and was gashed for 478 total yards against the Packers in a marquee Week 12 matchup, but bounced back to hold San Diego to 216 yards last week while winning a 23-14 decision. The Patriots have won 10 or more games for 12 straight seasons, the second-best run in league history behind San Francisco's 16 in a row from 1983-1998.

They're sitting in the No. 1 spot across the entire AFC, too, by virtue of a 43-21 defeat of fellow 10-3 rival Denver in November.

New England will finish the season with Miami, the Jets and Buffalo, while Denver has San Diego, Cincinnati and Oakland in its homestretch. The Patriots have won seven of their last eight against New York and 13 in a row over the Bills, but Bill Belichick doesn't expect to discuss those scenarios for more than "15 seconds" before getting back to the Week 1 loss to the Dolphins.

"We need to talk about how to play offense, defense and special teams against the Dolphins a lot better than we did the last time we played them, which wouldn't take much," he said. "That's what we'll be talking about this week: what to do and how to do it."

Brady completed just 29-of-56 passes and fumbled twice in the road opener, but has 17 touchdowns against two interceptions and is averaging 303.8 passing yards per game across six home games - which have yielded an average margin of 18.4 points.

Additionally, New England is 52-9 in December under Belichick and 59-6 at home since late 2006.

"We're trying to win every time we take the field," Brady said.

"Winning never gets old, I know that. I think that feeling that we had the other night was a great feeling and that's what motivates you to win because you know the opposite side of that. We worked pretty hard to get to this point. Guys have put in a lot of work over the whole offseason and to put ourselves in this position has been a lot of fun. But, we have to go out there and capitalize."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Get Back to the Run

The Dolphins ran for 191 yards against the Patriots in the Week 1 victory, and, given that the strength of the New England defense lies in its pass rush and secondary, it's probably wise to get back to what worked the first time around. Lamar Miller had just 59 of those 191 yards while the since-injured Knowshon Moreno carried the load, but he's still a valuable asset at 4.8 yards per rush.

Hop on Gronk... Again

This just in, Rob Gronkowski is pretty good. The Patriots tight end has 997 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns through 13 games, and could be a matchup problem - though what else is new - if the Dolphins are without linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins, both of whom are labeled questionable. In their absence, his coverage could fall to Dion Jordan and/or Jordan Tripp.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Football reality time typically arrives for the AFC East in December. And alongside the realities that the New York Jets will probably disappoint and the Buffalo Bills will probably freeze, chances are typically good that the Dolphins will not beat the Patriots in a game that actually has significance. Given the momentums that each time has been riding thus far this month, don't expect a change.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17