December 30, 2012

Stakes aplenty for Patriots in the finale

By HOWARD ULMAN The Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The Miami Dolphins are finishing their fourth straight non-playoff season. The New England Patriots have clinched their fourth consecutive AFC East title.

DOLPHINS (7-8) at PATRIOTS (11-4)

WHEN: 4:25 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Gillette Stadium

TELEVISION: CBS

SERIES RECORD: Dolphins lead 50-44

LAST MEETING: Patriots beat Dolphins 23-16, Dec. 2

LAST WEEK: Dolphins beat Bills 24-10; Patriots beat Jaguars 23-16

DOLPHINS OFFENSE: Overall -- 26, rush -- 13, pass -- 26

DOLPHINS DEFENSE: Overall -- 18, rush -- 10, pass -- 25

PATRIOTS OFFENSE: Overall -- 1, rush -- 8, pass -- 4

PATRIOTS DEFENSE: Overall -- 27, rush -- 12, pass -- 29

STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES: In first meeting four weeks ago, Patriots clinched AFC East title for fourth straight season by beating Dolphins. ... Patriots have won five straight against Dolphins since losing 22-21 in second meeting in 2009. ... Dolphins missed playoffs for fourth straight season and 10th in 11 despite winning past two games. ... Miami looking to avoid fourth consecutive losing season. ... RB Reggie Bush needs 40 yards rushing to reach 1,000 for second time. Also did it last season, his first with Miami since spending five with New Orleans. ... Rookie QB Ryan Tannehill has thrown for 12 TDs and 12 interceptions but in last five games has five TD passes and no interceptions. ... S Reshad Jones recovered two fumbles and intercepted pass last Sunday. ... DE Cameron Wake has career-high 15 sacks. ... Patriots enter weekend with chance of being seeded in any of top four AFC spots. ... QB Tom Brady needs three TD passes to become first player with at least 35 in four seasons, also tied for second with Johnny Unitas with TD pass in 47 straight games. ... Patriots won 20 straight December games at home before losing two weeks ago to San Francisco 49ers, 41-34. ... In first start since sixth game of season, safety Patrick Chung had two interceptions last Sunday. ... WR Brandon Lloyd needs 98 yards receiving to reach 1,000 for second time. ... DE Rob Ninkovich and DT Vince Wilfork tied for second in NFL with four fumble recoveries.

-- The Associated Press

So what's there to play for in Sunday's regular-season finale?

Plenty, both teams say.

For the Dolphins, it's a chance to end on a high note with a third consecutive win and stop their streak of three losing seasons.

"It means a lot," running back Reggie Bush said. "It's about finishing strong. It's about winning that last game and, obviously, carrying that over, hopefully, into the next year."

For the Patriots, it's a chance to avoid a third mediocre performance in a row and move up into one of the two AFC spots that earn a first-round bye.

"It's our last opportunity to make improvements before the playoffs," quarterback Tom Brady said.

New England (11-4) goes into the weekend with the possibility of being seeded in any of the top four AFC slots.

It would be eliminated from the No. 1 position if the Houston Texans wrap it up by beating the Indianapolis Colts in an early game but would still begin its late game hoping to climb from the third to the second position. It would have to win while the Denver Broncos are upset by the lowly Kansas City Chiefs.

"I'm sure we'll be aware of that," Brady said, "but I don't think that changes what our goal is for the weekend."

That goal is the same as it is every weekend -- to win -- no matter who the opponent.

Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork knows that if the Patriots play the way they did in last Sunday's 23-16 win over the weak Jacksonville Jaguars, beating the Dolphins (7-8) will be tough.

"We're going to expect their best," he said. "Last week we expected Jacksonville's best and they gave us their best. They played very, very tough. They didn't play like a team that only won two games, I'll tell you that. We're expecting the same thing here."

The Patriots struggled to beat the Dolphins when they met Dec. 2 in Miami. Dan Carpenter's 33-yard field goal with 8:28 left cut New England's lead to 20-13. But the Patriots held the ball for more than seven minutes before scoring on a 20-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski as they held on for a 23-16 win.

"We played them pretty well, given how they were playing coming" into the game with five straight wins, Bush said. "We can learn a lot from that last game."

Especially when it happened so recently.

"It's pretty easy to get up to speed when it's only been (four) weeks," Brady said. "It is pretty fresh in our mind of how they played us, the things they do well. Certainly, they gave us everything we could handle."

But more than just team accomplishments are at stake in the finale.

Bush needs 40 yards rushing to reach 1,000 for the second straight season. Brady needs three touchdown passes to become the first quarterback with 35 in four seasons.

The Dolphins posted convincing wins in their last two games against Jacksonville and Buffalo. But they were eliminated from playoff contention a few minutes after their 24-10 win over the Bills when Cincinnati got the last AFC playoff berth by beating Pittsburgh.

Winning on Sunday would end the Patriots' chances of getting a bye, but Dolphins center Mike Pouncey isn't dwelling on that.

"We don't really know their playoff schedule," he said. "We know ours."

The Patriots followed their win over the Dolphins with a 42-14 rout of the Texans. But then New England lost to the San Francisco 49ers 41-34 after falling behind 31-3 and trailed Jacksonville 10-0 in its next game. So they're focused on getting off to a good start, no matter how it affects the playoffs.

(Continued on page 2)

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