Two hot teams hope to build momentum
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The New England Patriots want to build momentum heading into the postseason. The Miami Dolphins hope to carry theirs into next season.
In a game that has no effect on who reaches the playoffs, the AFC East rivals and two of the NFL's hottest teams are finding plenty to play for today.
For the Patriots, it's a chance to sharpen their performances and maybe even move up a notch to become the third-seeded team in the AFC playoffs. For the Dolphins, its an unexpected opportunity to end Nick Saban's first season as their coach on a high note with more evidence that the Dolphins first playoff berth since 2001 may not be far off.
"When we were 3-7, I made these statements about getting it right and doing the right thing so you have a chance to be successful," Saban said, "and that's what we want to continue to build on so that we can become a playoff team in the future."
The Dolphins (8-7) would finish just one game behind the two-time defending Super Bowl champions if they win the regular-season finale. They also would extend their winning streak to six games, their longest since they opened the 1992 season at 6-0 and went on to the AFC championship game.
"It makes work a lot easier" to keep winning, linebacker Zach Thomas said. "You start saying the could've, should've, would've type thing. It's something we'll learn from, maybe next year."
The Patriots (10-5) also struggled early, going 4-4 at midseason. But they've gotten healthier, the defense has held its last four opponents below 200 yards and Tom Brady has led the offense to four straight wins and six in the last seven games.
He doesn't know how much he'll play today. Neither do most other regulars. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the brains of the defense, is listed as questionable with a calf injury suffered in last Monday night's 31-21 win over the New York Jets, and would benefit from an extra week of rest.
The Patriots, though, can be seeded third if they win and Cincinnati loses at Kansas City.
"You have to focus on taking care of your responsibility and doing your job and then once things have really been decided and settled, then you can look at what has happened," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said.
Belichick said his approach Sunday will be the same as in other games, using the players who give the team the best chance to win. His players would much rather be on the field.
"The season is not over. This is Week 17 and we want to finish strong," rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "I can rest later. They pay me to play."
The Patriots' current 6-1 run began with a 23-16 win at Miami in which they scored the winning touchdown with 2:16 left, then stopped Miami after it had a first down at the New England 5 with 58 seconds remaining.
"I think that was the game that we knew we were pretty good, offensively, and we could move the ball against good teams," Dolphins quarterback Gus Frerotte said.
Of the next five teams the Patriots beat, only Tampa Bay has a better record than 5-10. But the Patriots dominated the Buccaneers 28-0.
Facing a good team like Miami "is a great test," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "If it was another team that maybe wasn't playing as good as Miami, I don't know. I just know that this is who we've got, Miami this week, and they're playing well."
The Dolphins are coming off a 24-10 win over Tennessee in which Ricky Williams rushed for 172 yards on 26 carries, his best game since ending his one-year retirement. His workload increased because Ronnie Brown missed the game with knee and ankle injuries. Brown is questionable for today.
The Patriots have allowed a total of 125 yards rushing in their last four games and dominated the Jets, holding them to 171 total yards and 16:39 in time of possession.
"You may hit one play on them, but it's not going to happen two times most of the time," Saban said. "They have really played with an aggressive, physical attitude. They did in our game and they've just continued that way. I just think this is an outstanding front seven."
Beating a championship team that's playing so well would be a fitting climax to the second half of the Dolphins' season.
"The process of not playing well is that you learn how to play well," Williams said. "I think you have to be happy with what we've accomplished.
The last time the Patriots missed the playoffs, in 2002, they ended the season with a 27-24 overtime win over Miami in Foxborough. Another win over the same team in the same place would give them another spark going into the playoffs.
"There's no better way to end the season than with a win over the Dolphins," Brady said.
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