Patriots can clinch division with win over Miami
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The game hasn't even started, and the Miami Dolphins are already braced for a comeback by the New England Patriots.
AFC East leader New England has achieved come-from-behind victories in its past three games, and will try to extend the winning streak -- with a rally if necessary -- Sunday at Miami.
The Patriots (10-3) find themselves one win from clinching their fifth consecutive division title even though they've trailed at halftime in each of the past three games. The latest victory was especially improbable, with Tom Brady throwing for two scores in the final 61 seconds to beat Cleveland 27-26.
The Dolphins know firsthand how precarious a lead over New England can be. They were up 17-3 at halftime in Foxborough seven weeks ago, but lost 27-17.
So they'll be mindful of the Patriots' comeback knack Sunday.
"At no point will we feel like the game is wrapped up until there is no more time on the clock," tackle Tyson Clabo said. "Obviously you have to play a complete game. That's what I anticipate us doing."
Here are five things to consider regarding the 97th meeting between the division rivals:
Dealing with deficits
The Dolphins (7-6) are coming off a comeback themselves. They rallied three times in last week's 34-28 win at Pittsburgh and took the lead to stay in the fourth quarter.
The victory kept Miami tied for the sixth-best record in the race for the AFC's six playoff berths.
"The reason why we won was we made some plays in the fourth quarter," coach Joe Philbin said. "We are going to have to do that again."
The Patriots keep pulling out wild wins because Brady has been at his best when behind. Over the past three games he has a passer rating of 127.5 in the second half, and he has thrown for more than 200 yards after halftime in all three victories.
"I don't feel like there's a third-quarter Tom Brady and a fourth-quarter Tom Brady," Tom Brady said. "I try to always do the same thing. But it's pretty cool that we've been able to come back in all these games and win. That has been a lot of fun. You've got guys that can make clutch plays at clutch times, and that gives everyone a good feeling if you're in that situation."
Miami has beaten New England 50 times, just not lately. The past seven meetings went to the Patriots, who will try to sweep the season series for the fourth year in a row.
Only eight current Miami players have beaten the Patriots while wearing a Dolphins uniform.
"Eight?" said defensive end Cameron Wake, who is among the eight. "I didn't know that. I'm sure the Patriots don't know that either. That's not something we focus on. I'd never beaten the Steelers, but we beat them last weekend, so it's kind of silly."
Tale of the tight ends
The injury-plagued Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a season-ending right knee injury against Cleveland, costing Brady one of his favorite targets.
Other Patriots who have gone on injured reserve include defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
"It stinks to lose really good players, especially guys of the quality that we've lost this year," Brady said. "You can let it affect you and your performance and your preparation, or you can deal with it and try to go out there and win a game."
While the Dolphins won't have to worry about Gronkowski, the Patriots will be well aware of Miami tight end Charles Clay, who has emerged as a threat in recent weeks while assuming multiple roles. Clay caught two touchdown passes at Pittsburgh.
"He can be in the backfield, attached to the line of scrimmage, off the line of scrimmage or even spread out, which makes it very difficult to defend him," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said.
The Dolphins rank in the lower half of the NFL in almost all offensive categories, but they showed more punch lately and are coming off their first four-TD game of the season.
In December Ryan Tannehill has thrown for five scores with only two interceptions, while Miami has averaged 153 yards rushing.
"We've just made more plays," Philbin said. "It's not necessarily that we've reinvented the wheel and we're out there tricking everybody, but our guys have broken some tackles."
Despite the Patriots' winning streak, they've given up 88 points in the past three games. Their defense ranks next-to-last in the league against the run and on third down.
The Dolphins are only 3-3 at home, with the games decided by a total of 19 points.
"The fans have gotten their money's worth in terms of excitement," Philbin said. "But we have to do better."
The Patriots are 3-3 on the road, with every game decided by a touchdown or less.
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