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NFL Preview - Miami (3-4) at New England (5-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - OK, this is an important game again. By next week, though... who knows?
Heading into the season, it seemed logical that a Week 9 matchup between the defending AFC East Division champion (Miami) and the team that had won the crown and advanced to the Super Bowl a year prior (New England) would be vital in terms of the fight for 2009 supremacy.
And then for a while, it wasn't.
A 3-0 start by the New York Jets - which included a win over New England - coupled with the Patriots' generally shaky beginning and an 0-3 stumble by the Dolphins, had everyone within Rex Ryan's gravitational pull claiming both the reigning and recent champs had become mere green footnotes.
Those tides, however, have turned yet again.
Ryan's suddenly punchless gang has tumbled to four losses in five subsequent games - twice to the Dolphins - leaving a 3-4 Miami squad just two games off the pace of a 5-2 New England team that found itself to the tune of 94 points in two games before last week's bye.
A New England win, and the division is again the playpen of Mssrs. Brady, Belichick and Moss.
A Miami win improves its record in the East to 4-0, narrows the first-place gap from two games to one and goes a long way toward proving coach Tony Sparano's claim - following last week's encore against the Jets - that the road to the division title will still show flecks of teal and orange.
Sparano is 7-2 in his tenure against the AFC East, and has won five straight.
Kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his role in the 30-25 triumph, in which he scored on runbacks of 101 and 100 yards, becoming the first player in league history with two 100-plus yard scores in the same game.
Elsewhere, the Dolphins were outgained as a team, 378-104.
"All you've been preaching all week long with these guys is to keep grinding and finish games, keep grinding and finishing games, keep your head down and finish games," Sparano said. "They did that. We had a great week of practice. It didn't show in some phases, but they fought, they fought hard during the course of this game. Their effort was outstanding all over the place.
"I think we have a heck of a challenge ahead of us but this team will be excited about it. We gave ourselves something to be excited about right now. We will just put our head down and keep grinding the way we do."
The Patriots, meanwhile, return from a brief tour of the NFL's laughingstock department, which resulted in a 59-0 shelling of the then-winless Tennessee Titans - in which Tom Brady threw for six touchdowns - and a 35-7 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before a packed house at London's Wembley Stadium.
In those two, New England outgained its foes, 1,033-426, registered 50 first downs to 19 against, and saw Brady complete 52-of-66 passes for 688 yards and nine touchdowns.
"When we go out and execute well, we score points," he said. "It's a much more concerted effort in practice to get those things done. It's pretty easy for me to evaluate how I played and why I did something that nobody else would really know."
Miami holds a 48-36 lead in its all-time regular season series with New England, including an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Dolphins earned a shocking 38-13 road victory at the Patriots in Week 3 of last season, but were dealt a 48-28 setback in the return matchup in South Florida during Week 12. The Pats swept the 2007 home-and-home with their longtime AFC East rival. The Dolphins have not won back-to-back games at New England since 1999-2000.
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 escaped with a 31-14 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).
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 10-10 against Miami in his head coaching career, including 10-8 while with New England. Sparano - a native of West Haven, CT - is 1-1 versus both Belichick and the Patriots as a head coach.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Already the drafted heir apparent before the injury to Chad Pennington, Chad Henne has thrived in divisional games, going 3-0 while completing 46-of-69 passes for 468 yards, four touchdowns and a 105.2 passer rating. He has, of course, never faced the Patriots. Ronnie Brown was a nightmare for Belichick & Co. in his last trip to Foxboro, unleashing the Wildcat offense to the tune of 113 rushing yards and a franchise-record four TDs. He's scored seven times in his last six games, and, along with Ricky Williams, comprises the only tandem in the league with five rushing TDs apiece. Williams has a 5.4-yard average on 78 carries in 2009. In the air, wideout Devone Bess leads the team with 30 catches for 206 yards and tight end Joey Haynos scored his first receiving TD last week.
New England was on the receiving end of the Wildcat when Miami headed north last season, allowing 38 points and losing for the first time in the regular season since 2006. The Patriots held the Dolphins to 28 in a 20-point win later in the season. So far in 2009, they've given up a stingy 285.7 yards per week, good for third in the AFC. Only 109.7 of those yards have come on the ground, compared to the 153.4 the Dolphins have racked up through seven weeks. Always opportunistic, the Patriots have forced a turnover in 15 consecutive games. Safety Brandon Meriweather had a pair of interceptions - including a 39-yard return for a touchdown - against the Bucs, while rookie cornerback Darius Butler goes for a third straight game with a pick. Also, recently-signed veteran (and ex-Dolphin) Junior Seau aims for his 25th consecutive win as a member of the Patriots.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Just around the time people started questioning whether Brady was back from last year's knee injury, he started answering. The Michigan alum has connected on 117-of-173 passes for 1,438 yards, 13 TDs and a 113.3 passer rating in his last five games, and aims for a third straight game against Miami with at least three TD passes. In his last two against the Dolphins, he's been good for nine touchdowns and a 124.2 rating. On the other end, former Dolphin Wes Welker leads the team with 46 catches - all in the last five games - and goes for a third straight 100-yard outing. He leads the league since 2007 with 269 catches. Oh, and Randy Moss is good, too. He had eight catches for 125 yards and three scores the last time he faced Miami. On the ground Laurence Maroney has a team-high 265 yards and Kevin Faulk became the 26th back in history last week to reach 400 receptions.
Stopping teams hasn't necessarily been the strong suit for the Dolphins, who've allowed 20 or more points in five of seven games - including 46 against New Orleans. Passing has been the avenue of choice for foes, who've averaged 236 yards per game through the air and completed 56.7 percent of passes while being intercepted six times. Pressuring the passer has paid off with 19 sacks, including 5� from returning veteran Jason Taylor. Taylor leads all active players with 126 sacks and has 12 career sacks against New England. Linebacker Joey Porter has eight sacks in his last four games against the Patriots, including a career-high four last September. Will Allen, who's gone for the season due to injury, is the only Dolphin with multiple interceptions and Yeremiah Bell leads with 48 tackles.
The big offensive names are easy calls - Brown and Williams for Miami, Brady, Moss and Welker for New England. All should at least get the chance to thrive, if not actually succeed. Miami has given up points to opposing tight ends all season, which makes New England's Ben Watson a mildly attractive option as well. And Ginn, with his return prowess, is a proven commodity in the right slot. Defensively, the Patriots probably deserve more respect.
Ever the optimist, Sparano is rightfully claiming the road to the AFC East goes through his Dolphins. However, what he doesn't mention while hanging his hat on that statement is that Miami's wins were hardly inspiring of awe. The Dolphins beat the Jets on the final play of the game in the first matchup and were saved by Ginn in game No. 2. And the third win was against a Buffalo team that's leaned as close to awful as respectable in recent days. Bottom line, if Brady plays like Brady, the Pats don't lose.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Dolphins 20.
11/05 14:25:22 ET
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