Dolphins Face Uphill Battle Against Patriots
MIAMI (AP) — The New England Patriots routinely dominate the AFC East, and this season is proving to be no different.
After their latest division victory turned into a laugher, the Patriots look to clinch their ninth East title in 10 seasons by beating the Miami Dolphins for a fifth consecutive time Sunday.
New England (8-3) is 28-6 in divisional play over the past six seasons, winning eight in a row since a loss at Buffalo in Week 3 of 2011.
The most lopsided victory in that recent stretch came on Thanksgiving with a 49-19 road rout of the New York Jets. The Patriots broke the game open by tying a franchise record with 35 points in the second quarter, including three touchdowns in a span of 52 seconds en route to their fifth win in a row.
Making it six straight would mean a fourth straight division title.
“That’s huge,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We’re really thankful as a team to be where we are right now, to have a chance to be in position to play for something else. But we realize that eight wins doesn’t get us anything. That’ll get us a ticket home at the end of the season.”
That’s not likely since with the Patriots have the NFL’s best offense, averaging 435.8 yards and 37.0 points. They also play three of their remaining five games against teams with losing records – two against the Dolphins and another against Jacksonville.
New England has been practically unstoppable during its winning streak, averaging 43.8 points with six of its staggering 28 touchdowns coming via the defense and special teams.
Tom Brady has been superb in that stretch, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 1,454 yards with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions while compiling a 116.3 passer rating. He tossed three of those TDs last week, adding another on a 1-yard plunge.
“I think we’ve done some things well in the last couple of games,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t think that really has any bearing on this game; different team, different matchups, different schemes. It’s all different.”
One area that’s mattered all season is turnovers. The Patriots’ offense has turned the ball over a league-low eight times, while the 32 created by the defense ranks only behind Chicago’s 33. New England has forced 16 turnovers while giving it away twice during its winning streak.
“It’s important to an offensive football team not turning the ball over,” Brady said. “Whether that’s myself throwing it or whether the back’s carrying it or the receiver’s carrying it. I think it all goes together. It’s the whole offensive system. Every time we talk about what we want to do each week, it starts with ‘no turnovers.'”
That’s been the case during the Patriots’ four-game winning streak against the Dolphins (5-6), as they’re plus-7 in the turnover department. Brady has keyed that run by connecting on 65.7 percent of his passes for 1,173 yards with eight TDs and one INT.
The Dolphins are trying to return to .500 by building on last weekend’s 24-21 win over Seattle. Rookie Ryan Tannehill brought Miami back in the fourth quarter by throwing a touchdown to Charles Clay with 5:13 left before Dan Carpenter hit a 43-yard field goal as time expired.
Despite the dramatics, Tannehill has two touchdowns compared to six interceptions over the past three games. He’s aware those mistakes will need to stop if Miami is to compete with New England.
“They’re an opportunistic defense,” Tannehill said. “The focus this week – as it is every week – is to not have turnovers. In order for us to win that battle, we can’t turn it over.”
Tannehill should be helped by a rejuvenated running game that totaled 189 yards last week as Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas reached the end zone. Miami hadn’t managed a 100-yard game since gaining 185 in a 23-20 overtime loss to the Jets in Week 3.
The Dolphins are also trying to continue improving their run defense, which held the Seahawks to 96 yards after surrendering an average of 132.2 yards over the previous five games.
“It’s important for us to be a good running football team, and a good defend-the-run team,” coach Joe Philbin said.
Miami may find some success running the ball this week since the Patriots’ Jermaine Cunningham will serve the first of a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
While New England has the division title in its sights, the Dolphins are only a game behind Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for the AFC’s final playoff berth.
“Every game is a playoff game from now on out,” Miami linebacker Kevin Burnett said. “Now is the time.”