FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Five games remain in the regular season for the New England Patriots. The final four may end up being tuneups for something bigger.
The Patriots can clinch the AFC East division title Sunday with a win at Miami. It would be their fourth division title in a row and ninth in 10 years, a sign of just how dominant New England has been over that time.
Since Tom Brady became the starting quarterback for New England in 2001, the Patriots are 57-15 against their division opponents — the Dolphins, Jets and Bills.
The Dolphins have always been their toughest foes, with seven wins in 22 games. So, as Brady said, to go to Miami on Sunday and come back with a division title “would be a nice little day.”
The Patriots have had several of those lately.
They are clearly playing their best ball of the season. They have won five in a row to improve to 8-3, winning those games by an average of 20 points. Their offense, despite suffering injuries to key players throughout the season, is averaging 43.8 points in that streak. Brady has thrown 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. And he’s only been sacked twice.
“We have done that,” said Brady, in his weekly Wednesday press conference. “But we have to continue to do it. I think that’s the important thing. Last week’s game is going to have no bearing on this week’s game. That’s not the way football works.
“Whether you win or lose, you have to put the previous week’s game behind you and move on.”
Brady and others know it’s not going to be easy against the Dolphins, who may only be 5-6 but have had their moments. In fact, they beat Seattle last week and the Seahawks were the last team to beat the Patriots, on Oct. 14.
New England is 14-33 all time in Miami and has the disadvantage of leaving the region’s 35 degree temperatures for the sunny and 75 Sunday forecast.
“I don’t know how you prepare for that,” said Brady.
Probably the same way the Patriots prepare for every game. Their single-minded approach leaves little time to think about what’s ahead, or what’s behind.
Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, in his first season with the Patriots, has not made the playoffs in any of his nine previous seasons with San Francisco, Washington, Chicago, Denver and St. Louis. Yet even he can’t get too excited about the possibility of clinching.
“It would be special to clinch a playoff berth,” he said. “And winning the game. And winning the game is No.1.”
That’s just the way the Patriots think.
Safety Steve Gregory, another first-year player with the Patriots, said clinching early would be nice, but wouldn’t change anything about the way this team does business.
“The sooner you can set yourself apart from the pack, the better,” he said. “But we just take it one week at a time.”
And, really, that’s how most NFL teams operate. Asked about the Patriots coming to his stadium and clinching, Miami Coach Joe Philbin said he isn’t paying attention to the standings.
“Believe it or not, this is the honest to God truth, I didn’t even know that,” said Philbin. “I’m not surprised as I’m looking at what they’ve done the last five weeks. We’re just looking to improve and play better
“We’re going into week 12 and we’ve got to show a lot of improvement to beat this football team. We’re not worried necessarily about (the Patriots clinching), we’re worried about how well they’re executing in all three phases of the game. But as far as the standings right now, that’s not really a focus of ours.”
After Miami, the Patriots have back-to-back prime-time games at home against two of the NFL’s top teams: Houston (10-1) on Monday, Dec. 10, and San Francisco (8-2-1) on Sunday, Dec. 16. Those games provide an opportunity to see how good the Patriots are.
Those games could also determine whether the Patriots get a first-round bye in the playoffs, or not.
But first comes Sunday and the chance to celebrate, at least a little.
“Well, there’s always motivation for us to go out there and win,” said Brady. “And this is a great opportunity for us.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: