New England outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower sacks Jacksonville quarterback Chad Henne last Sunday.
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.
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 different seasons.
Players should have plenty of motivation even without those individual accomplishments.
“When I signed on to coach the 2012 Miami Dolphins I knew there were 16 regular season games to be coached, and I have to have the same focus and our staff has to have the same focus and same sense of urgency (as) when we opened the season in Houston,” Joe Philbin said. “There shouldn’t be guys talking about what I’m doing New Year’s Eve.”
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.
“You want to be playing well so you have confidence going into the playoffs,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, but “whatever we do this weekend isn’t going to have any bearing on what happens in the playoff (game) the following week. What’s going to have a bearing on the playoff (game) is how we prepare for that week and the opponent and our scheme and our execution.”
The Patriots miss the receiving and blocking of tight end Rob Gronkowski, sidelined the past five games with a broken left forearm. Even if he returns, he may not be at full strength.
Without him, Brady has been sacked 11 times in the last four games after being sacked only 15 times in the first 11. Now the Patriots must stop Cameron Wake, who has a career-high 15 sacks.
The Patriots don’t expect him to stop charging just because the Dolphins won’t be in the playoffs.
“We expect every opponent we play, each player and each team, to perform at their best,” Belichick said. “That’s what we prepare for — their best performance, not a poor one.”
And the Patriots usually succeed.
“They’ve dominated this division for over a decade,” Philbin said. “So if you can’t get excited about playing the best in your division to close out your season, then you’re not a professional football player.”
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