NFL Preview - Miami (7-8) at New England (13-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A Week 17 game at the New England Patriots may be Tony Sparano's last as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Or it may not.
Depending on whose reports are believed, Sparano's status for 2011 was either confirmed after a discussion between owner Stephen Ross and former Miami personnel guru Bill Parcells -- or such a conversation hasn't actually happened and Sparano's role going forward is still undetermined.
NFL Network reporter Mike Lombardi claimed the former on Wednesday and said Sparano will hire a new offensive coordinator to replace the retiring Dan Henning, while the Miami Herald said Thursday that Parcells and Ross haven't spoken on the matter and Sparano's status remains uncertain for next year.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen has previously reported Sparano will be fired after Sunday's game.
For his part, Sparano has been content to let others make the call.
"That's a question for somebody else, not for me right now," he said.
Regardless, the Dolphins enter the finale on a decidedly down note, with consecutive home losses to Buffalo and Detroit dropping the team's overall record to 7-8 and its mark at Sun Life Stadium to 1-7.
Miami was eliminated from playoff contention with its 34-27 loss to the Lions in Week 15, while the Patriots are 13-2 and have clinched the AFC's No. 1 seed. Fellow AFC East entry New York is 10-5 and will advance as a Wild Card for the second straight season.
Sparano led the Dolphins to the division title in his first season in 2008, but lost in the opening round of the playoffs that year and is just 14-17 in 31 regular-season games since.
Miami is the league's third-worst team in terms of scoring in spite of the offseason acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has 81 receptions for 917 yards and three touchdowns.
"I'm pretty confident that I can get it turned around," Sparano said. "I feel like I know these pieces pretty well."
As for the Patriots, it's boiled down to the routine question of who'll play and who won't.
New England locked up the conference's top seed and home games throughout the AFC Playoffs with a 34-3 defeat of Buffalo last weekend. The Patriots had last earned the No. 1 slot in 2007, when they completed the regular season at 16-0 and won playoff games against Jacksonville and San Diego before falling to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl.
Heading into the 2010 postseason tournament, New England is riding a seven-game win streak and has the league's most prolific scoring offense, averaging 32 points per game through 15 contests.
Against the Bills, quarterback Tom Brady established an NFL record by stretching his streak to 319 passes without an interception.
Head coach Bill Belichick hasn't gone public with his plans for the starters against Miami.
"There's a lot of things that would go into that conversation, a lot of things we'll take into consideration," Belichick said. "There's some players individually whose situations are a little different than other guys. We'll do what's best for the football team, both individually and collectively."
Miami holds a 49-38 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England, but was dealt a 41-14 shellacking at the hands of the Patriots at Sun Life Stadium in a Monday night matchup during Week 4. New England also posted a 27-17 victory over the Dolphins in Foxborough last year, avenging a 38-13 upset loss to Miami there during the 2008 campaign, and has bested the Dolphins at home in seven of the previous nine seasons. The Pats will be gunning for their first home-and-home sweep of Miami since 2007, a year in which the Dolphins finished 1-15.
In addition to the regular-season series, the teams have met three times in the postseason, with New England holding a 2-1 advantage there. The Patriots' most memorable postseason victory over Miami came in the 1985 AFC Championship, when New England came through with a 31-14 road triumph en route to its first-ever Super Bowl appearance. The clubs also met in AFC First-Round Playoff matchups in 1982 and 1997, with Miami winning the former (28-13) and New England taking the latter (17-3).
Belichick is 12-11 against Miami in his head coaching career, including a 12-9 while with New England. Sparano, a native of West Haven, CT, is 2-3 versus both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Things have been surprisingly dreadful in the ball-moving categories for the Dolphins, who rank no better than 14th in the league in any one statistical offensive category (passing yards, 221.4 per game). Elsewhere, Miami is 30th in points (17.7 ppg), 21st in total yardage (328 ypg) and 20th in rushing (106.6 ypg). Then again, New England isn't known for its suffocating defense, faring no better than 13th in the league in points allowed (20.4 ppg) and ranking 27th in total defense (374.3 ypg), 30th in pass defense (262.0 ypg) and 16th in rushing defense (112.3 ypg).
Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne is 9-4 in his career as a road starter. In the Miami backfield, running back Ronnie Brown aims for a third straight game with a rushing touchdown and needs one 100-yard game to pass Larry Csonka for second-most in franchise history, behind only teammate Ricky Williams. Brown has five rushing touchdowns in four career games at New England. On the outside, Marshall needs 64 receiving yards to reach 5,000 for his career and 10 catches to pass O.J. McDuffie (90) for the most in a season for a Miami player. He's aiming for a third straight game with at least 10 catches and 100 yards. Marshall and Davone Bess (76 receptions) can become the first Miami duo to each reach 80 catches in a season. In his last two games against the Patriots, Bess is averaging 106.5 receiving yards and will be aiming for a third straight game against New England with a touchdown.
On the Patriots' defense, cornerback Devin McCourty -- the 27th pick in last April's draft -- is tied for the lead among NFL rookies with six interceptions and was one of four New England defenders named to the Pro Bowl. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Brandon Meriweather were the others.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England has been successful where it counts the most. The Patriots have averaged a league-best 32.0 points per game through 15 contest, even though their yardage averages don't match the high-end ranking. The team is 11th in total yardage (354.5 ypg) and 12th in both passing yards (235.1) and rushing yards per game (119.5). On the other hand, Miami has stayed in some games and won others with a defense that's tied for ninth in the league in terms of scoring (19.7 ppg) and in the single digits elsewhere, ranking third in total yards allowed (296.5 ypg), seventh in passing yards surrendered (201.8 ypg) and sixth in rushing yards given up (94.7 ypg).
New England is looking for an eighth straight game with at least 30 points and the team is 60-2 under Belichick when reaching at least 30. Brady needs 299 passing yards for his fourth straight 4,000-yard season. He's 7-1 in his career at home against Miami and has won an NFL-record 27 straight regular-season home games as a starter. In the backfield, BenJarvus Green-Ellis needs one rushing touchdown to become the third Patriot with 13 in a season. Fellow running back Danny Woodhead had a career-high 93 yards against the Bills last week. Among the receivers, Wes Welker has averaged 110.3 yards per game in his last four against Miami, while tight end Rob Gronkowski had two touchdown catches last week and tied Junior Miller for the second-most all-time among rookie tight ends with nine.
Defensively, Miami linebacker Cameron Wake has an NFL-best 14 sacks and needs one to become the first Dolphin with 15 since 1982. He has two sacks in three career games against the Patriots.
The New England offense remains a fantasy player's playground. Brady is as prolific as it gets at quarterback, while Woodhead has developed as a versatile threat and Welker has made a career of torching the Dolphins. Gronkowski is already a premier scoring option as a rookie at tight end. For Miami, it's Marshall and Bess and cross your fingers on everything else, though the defense and kicker Dan Carpenter have been solid all season as well.
The Dolphins may be playing for Sparano's job, or they may be playing to say a hearty goodbye. Either way, and considering the Patriots may be operating in second gear after accomplishing all their objectives, Miami becomes a better option overall. Expect New England to lead at halftime and the Dolphins to take it from there.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 24, Patriots 21
12/30 15:12:56 ET