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Dolphins, Pats face off in crucial AFC East clash

(Sports Network) - The AFC East championship is still up for grabs with just one game to play. Miami will try to stake its claim to the title this Sunday when it hits the road to take on division foe New England at Gillette Stadium.

Miami missed its first chance at securing the division title on Saturday thanks to a 20-17 loss at Minnesota. The Dolphins still control their own destiny, though, as a win in this contest will secure them East supremacy. A victory would also keep Miami in the running for a bye and allow it an outside shot at home field advantage throughout the postseason. However, a loss could put the Dolphins in a Wild Card game or possibly out of the postseason.

"Life is simple now," defensive end Jason Taylor said. "For the next seven days, all we have to think about is win. Just go win. Or . . . I don't want to even think about the alternative."

The Dolphins are well-known for their December collapses, as they have lost two games in the month seven straight years.

"It's deserved. We've earned that reputation," Dolphins left tackle Mark Dixon said. ". . . A lot of us are married to that reputation that we're above average, but not great."

New England will try to capitalize on the Dolphins' possible collapse while trying to stop one of its own. The defending Super Bowl champions are in danger of missing the postseason following their back-to-back losses to Tennessee and the New York Jets. Head coach Bill Belichick's club still could secure the East title with a win here and a Jets loss. The Patriots can also win the Wild Card if they beat Miami, the Jets beat the Packers, Denver loses to Arizona, San Diego loses to Seattle and Cleveland losses to Atlanta.

SERIES HISTORY: The Dolphins won the first meeting between these clubs, 26-13, on October 6 at Pro Player Stadium to increase their lead in the all-time series to 45-29. Miami QB Jay Fiedler completed 17-of-27 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns in the first meeting. The Dolphins have won six of the last seven meetings in the series.

Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt is 4-3 versus the Patriots, while Belichick is just 1-6 against the Dolphins.


The Miami offense struggled mightily against the weak Minnesota defense on Saturday, mustering just 13 first downs and only 236 yards. RB Ricky Williams managed 4.5 yards per carry, but only received 15 attempts in the loss. The lack of production ended his streak at five consecutive 100-plus yard rushing games.

Miami's offense couldn't stay on the field due to a lack of third down conversions (1-of-5). The Dolphins managed just 39 plays to 66 for the Vikings in the loss.

"The third-down conversions [1 for 5] were just awful," said Fiedler. "We were unable to stay on the field and get to all the plays we usually run. When you get limited opportunities, you need to make the most of them."

Williams could do very little for his team, as he spent more time on the sidelines than on the field due to the lack of time of possession (24:06).

"It's hard to be frustrated when we are doing it to ourselves," said Williams.

The Dolphins must control the tempo in this game with Williams, considering the Patriots are 27th in the league against the run (129.5 ypg). New England played well against the Jets' running attack last week, limiting it to just 108 total yards.

LBs Ted Johnson, Mike Vrabel and Roman Phifer must step up and close the running gaps for Williams this week. Phifer led the way for the Pats' defense against the Jets with 11 tackles, while Johnson recorded 10 stops. Look for the Patriots to slide safety Lawyer Milloy into the box to help the front seven stop Williams.

Fiedler did a decent job through the air against Minnesota, completing 15- of-21 passes for 177 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. A lot of his passing yards came on a 59-yard touchdown pass to Chris Chambers in the first quarter.

Despite the team's struggles, Wannstedt thinks that his team can recover this week.

"The key right now is going to be how quick we can get ready physically and mentally for New England," Wannstedt said. "As crazy as this whole season has been around the league, when I was standing here 16 weeks ago, the No. 1 thing we talked about was being in position to win the division. We have that.

"We win this week, we win the division. That's where our focus is, and that's how we approach it."

Miami's top WRs Chambers, James McKnight and Cris Carter should see a lot of single coverage with the Patriots focusing on stopping Williams. Chambers finished with two catches for 68 yards and a score last week, while McKnight hauled in five balls for 47 yards.

New England CBs Ty Law and Leonard Myers must perform better this week. The Patriots secondary surrendered 285 yards through the air to QB Chad Pennington and the Jets. Overall, the Patriots are in the middle of the pack in the league in pass defense (205.1 ypg).

Look for Fiedler to try to pick on the inexperienced Myers in this contest. Myers has just recently replaced veteran Terrell Buckley in the starting lineup. Original starter Otis Smith is out for the season with a shoulder injury.


New England's offense couldn't get much going against the Jets' defense, managing only 216 total yards. Patriots' QB Tom Brady completed just 19-of-37 passes for 133 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Brady is struggling to find some consistency in the offense in recent weeks.

"Yes, I mean you hope, you know, at the end of the year with as much work as you put in, you really play the best you can play. And you know, for one reason or another we are just, you know, we are not finding that right way right now," said Brady.

"And it seems sometimes like the harder you try, the harder it gets. And you know, the Jets played pretty good. But you know, I think it comes back to the way we executed and just didn't make enough plays to win Sunday."

The Patriots threw a lot of short passes against the Jets, averaging just 3.1 yards per pass. WR David Patten caught five balls for 38 yards, while RB Kevin Faulk added four receptions for 38 yards.

New England has slipped to 12th in the league in pass offense (224.1 ypg) due to its struggles in recent weeks. Brady must be sharp with his throws against the excellent Miami secondary.

The Dolphins' corner duo of Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain is one of the best in the league. Both corners are capable of locking up wideouts in single coverage, freeing up the safeties to roam and make plays. Safety Brock Marion tallied a team-high nine tackles last week thanks to his freedom.

Don't expect Brady to be able to relax in the pocket in this contest, as the Dolphins have two terrific pass rushing defensive ends in Taylor and Adewale Agunleye. Taylor has tied the team-record for sacks with 18.5 this season, including 1.5 last week. Agunleye has added 10 sacks from the other side.

The Dolphins lead the league in sacks with 46, while the Patriots have surrendered only 30 on the year. A key matchup to watch will be Patriots LT Matt Light versus Taylor. New England will likely keep FB Marc Edwards in the backfield to help on Taylor.

The Patriots must establish some type of running game with Antowain Smith to keep the Dolphins off balance in this tilt. Smith registered just 46 yards on only 14 attempts versus the Jets. The anemic New England running game is mustering just 92.8 yards per affair.

Miami should be able to shut Smith down with DT Tim Bowens and LB Zach Thomas doing the dirty work. Bowens is excellent at locking up offensive lineman so that Thomas is freed up to make stops. Thomas is tied for the league lead in tackles with Buffalo's London Fletcher (140).

Both of these teams are coming off tough losses and still have playoff dreams, which should provide plenty of motivation for this tilt. Miami will likely ride the shoulders of Williams to this victory in less-than-desirable weather.

12/26 13:09:27 ET

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