FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A game that means nothing in the standings means plenty to the teams playing in it.
The New England Patriots want to keep their winning momentum going after having clinched homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Miami Dolphins want to finish with a .500 record and their coach wants to keep his job.
“It means something to us,” Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said. “Every Sunday that you go out there, you’re playing for your pride and your teammates. You don’t want to let the guys down beside you, so you’re still going to play hard. You don’t want to lose a game ever.”
The Patriots haven’t done that in seven weeks. Their 13-2 record is the best in the NFL. So is their quarterback, the league leader in passer rating, touchdown passes and fewest interceptions.
Tom Brady wants to play Sunday even though his team has locked up its eighth AFC East title in 10 years. That would give him a chance to add to his NFL records of 27 consecutive home wins in the regular season and 319 straight passes without an interception.
“I would expect to see a great deal of him,” Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. “I’m sure the Patriots … want to win their 14th football game so I would expect that they’re going to go out there and do everything in their power to be able to do that. Most teams going into the playoffs the way they’re going into the playoffs want to be as hot as they can be.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick gave few clues about how much his regulars would play, saying, as usual, that he’ll do what’s best for the team.
The Dolphins (7-8) are playing for a rather dubious achievement. A win would give them a 7-1 record on the road. Pretty impressive, until you realize that would be the best road record in NFL history by a team that didn’t make the playoffs.
“We play well on the road because we bond together,” quarterback Chad Henne said. “We just feel that we’re the only team out there and it’s kind of a backs against the wall mentality and we just love that environment and we just respond well to that.”
Like his coach, Henne’s future is uncertain.
He’s been erratic with 15 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. He had two passes picked off last Sunday at home in a 34-27 loss to the Detroit Lions, the last-place team in the NFC North. And the Dolphins could finish last in scoring in the AFC for the first time in their 45-year history.
In the fourth week of the season, the Patriots scored on a blocked field goal, kickoff return and interception return to win 41-14 in Miami. Henne had his highest completion percentage of the season, 74.3, in that game but threw three interceptions.
A strong showing Sunday would add some highlights to his resume. But is he Miami’s quarterback of the future?
“Right now, I don’t know where that is,” Henne said, “but I’ve just got to worry about this game and how I play in this game.”
If he is the starter next season, will Sparano be coaching him?
“That’s a question for somebody else, not for me right now,” said Sparano, who has one year left on his contract. “I know I’m coaching the Dolphins this week against the New England Patriots and I’m excited about it. That’s the thing that I can control.”
Given Belichick’s past practice after his teams have locked up playoff spots, he’s likely to give many of his regulars considerable playing time. They say they’re ready for it.
Yes, even Wes Welker.
The star wide receiver suffered a serious knee injury on the first possession of last year’s final regular-season game at Houston. The Patriots already had clinched a playoff berth, but the injury kept Welker out of the 33-14 first-round playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
“I’m here to play football,” he said Thursday. “I love playing. So, no matter what’s at stake or no matter what the deal is, I want to play. I know people probably think differently about that, but I don’t worry about other stuff, and whatever coach Belichick decides for me, that’s what I’m going to do, but I’m always ready to play.”
Welker made a speedy recovery and leads the Patriots with 86 receptions.
His teammates also have something to play for.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who started the season deep down the depth chart, needs 72 yards for his first 1,000-yard rushing season. Rookie Devin McCourty is tied for the AFC lead with six interceptions. And the Patriots can end the season with eight straight games without committing a turnover.
More importantly, they want to keep improving going into the playoffs.
“The more you play during the season, the more in sync you will be,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said.
The Dolphins, who were 7-9 last year, have more modest goals.
“We want to go on with an eight-win season and try to get out of the losing record column and improve from last year,” Henne said. “We’re going to play our hearts out for this game.”