Patriots, Dolphins still have plenty to play for

Posted Dec. 23, 2011, at 6:21 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 24, 2011, at 1:40 a.m.
New England Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski (left) and Garrett Mills stretch during NFL football practice in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday.
Steven Senne | AP
New England Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski (left) and Garrett Mills stretch during NFL football practice in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots are in the playoffs for the ninth time in 11 years. The Miami Dolphins missed them for the ninth time in 10.

Both, though, have a lot at stake on Saturday with the Patriots going for a first-round bye and many Dolphins playing for jobs next season.

And both have the same approach to moving toward those goals. Forget about them.

“Right now, all we’re worried about is Miami,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters. “All the rest of it is just something for you guys to write about.”

Todd Bowles, a head coach for just one NFL game compared with Belichick’s 291, isn’t focused on what a victory would mean for his future in that position.

“I don’t have any expectations, really,” he said. “I’m just trying to get the guys to play hard and play better and play fast and try to come out with wins. I don’t control those decisions.”

The Patriots (11-3) clinched their third straight AFC East title last Sunday with a 41-23 win at the Denver Broncos. There are several ways for them to secure a bye this week, the easiest being a victory combined with a loss or tie by the Houston Texans. They even can clinch the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs if they win and Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore all lose or tie.

“I don’t think we think about any of those things other than Miami,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “We prepare hard, focus on what we can focus on, control what we can control, go out there and play with great effort, good execution and we’ll be in good position.”

The Dolphins (5-9) will focus on stopping Brady. They couldn’t do it in their season-opening 38-24 loss in Miami in which Brady threw for a franchise record 517 yards. Bowles, who led the Dolphins to a 30-23 win over the Buffalo Bills last Sunday after replacing the fired Tony Sparano, was the secondary coach then.

“It was the toughest game for me as a coach,” Bowles said. “You don’t see those kind of numbers every day. Nothing worked. Man (to man), zone, pressure, prevent. He completed everything. You write it off as a bad loss.”

But he remained confident and the secondary has improved considerably since then.

“I just think it was a bad game,” he said. “You just write it off and move on next week.”

The Patriots also have a dangerous offensive threat to handle. Reggie Bush rushed for a career-high 203 yards against Buffalo last Sunday, the same day New England allowed 167 yards rushing in the first quarter alone.

In their last two games, the Patriots have been burned for a total of 422 yards on the ground.

“He’s a special guy,” New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich said of Bush. “A guy like Reggie can do a lot of different things. … So you’ve just got to make sure you don’t let him do those things.”

Bush already has shown he can thrive as an every-down back, something he didn’t do in his other five NFL seasons, all with the New Orleans Saints.

So what motivates him with his team out of the playoff race?

“It’s the New England Patriots,” he said. “Anytime you’re playing a divisional opponent it’s always big and we want to finish the season strong. At the same time, we know that we’re still being evaluated. No matter what the record says, we’re all still being evaluated on a daily basis, on a weekly basis.”

Bush’s job for next season is secure.

Matt Moore is still trying to enhance his resume as the starting quarterback after Chad Henne suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the fourth game.

The Dolphins rebounded after losing their first seven games with a 5-2 record, but Moore has completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes in each of the last four games.

Still, Bush said, “he’s been the backbone of this team. I honestly believe that. Without him, we wouldn’t (have) been able to put together the stream of wins that we have. …I think you see when we give him time to throw the ball he can be dangerous, he can be effective.”

He very well could be against the Patriots. Starting with the third week of the season, their defense has been ranked worst in the league in both total yards and yards passing allowed. And now they must go on without defensive end Andre Carter, the team leader with 10 sacks who suffered a season-ending injury to his left quadriceps against the Broncos.

“He works incredibly hard and he’s been having a great season,” cornerback Devin McCourty said. “To lose a guy like that, we just have to come together as a group.”

If they succeed, they could lock up a playoff bye with one regular-season game left. But if the Dolphins play spoilers?

“We’re not trying to spoil anything,” Bowles said. “We’re just trying to get better as a team and try to close out the season on a winning note. So we’re just going to worry about us now.”

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