1:00 PM ET, December 24, 2011
Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, MA
After a weekend in which every relevant result broke the New England Patriots' way, their path to the No. 1 seed in the AFC couldn't be clearer.
It remains murky, however, whether their struggling defense can improve enough to make a playoff run -- especially without their biggest pass-rushing presence.
Home victories the next two weeks over 5-9 foes Miami and Buffalo would ensure New England (11-3) won't play anywhere but Foxborough until either the Super Bowl or next season.
Of course, the Patriots also had the conference's top seed last postseason, only to be upset by the rival New York Jets in the divisional round -- the second straight year they've dropped their playoff opener at home.
Despite its stellar record, Bill Belichick's team hardly seems like a safe bet to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since its bid for a perfect season was spoiled there four years ago.
The Tom Brady-led offense is typically potent, having averaged 35.8 points during the club's six-game winning streak. New England's defense, though, has allowed more yards than any other team's, and the season-ending quadriceps injury Carter suffered last week in Denver certainly won't help.
"That's tough. Andre puts so much in with his leadership alone," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "He hasn't really won a lot in his career, but now he's winning, he's happy here, he's having fun, he's playing well. To see him go down, it's a blow."
Playing primarily at end in a newly installed 4-3 scheme, Carter provided the Patriots with a team-high 10 sacks. Without him, it's possible the club could return to more of the 3-4 arrangement it has used in past years.
"We used them both at different times for different reasons," Belichick said. "In the end, it comes back to the players -- beating blocks, making tackles, hitting the quarterback, covering the receivers."
New England didn't do much of any of that while allowing 167 yards on the ground in the first quarter Sunday, falling behind 16-7 early in the second. But the offense responded with 27 straight points and the defense tightened to cool down Tim Tebow and the Broncos in a 41-23 drubbing.
Not only did the win clinch the club's ninth AFC East title in 11 years, but the three other teams that had been tied at 10-3 atop the conference -- Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Houston -- lost.
"I don't think we've got enough time to smile," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "We see that happen, but I think it really (emphasizes) how important it is for us to keep playing well and to be ready to go on Saturday."
Saturday's game seems straightforward enough for the Patriots, who've outscored the Dolphins 117-45 in winning all three meetings over the last two seasons.
Miami has looked like a vastly improved team lately, however, winning five of seven since an 0-7 start. The revival wasn't good enough to save Tony Sparano's job, but the Dolphins won their first game under interim coach Todd Bowles, overcoming wintry weather for a 30-23 victory at Buffalo last week.
While Matt Moore has thrown 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the last seven games, Reggie Bush's renaissance has powered Miami lately, with the former USC star finally fulfilling the lofty expectations placed on him when he was drafted No. 2 overall by New Orleans in 2006.
With one 100-yard rushing game in five seasons with the Saints, Bush has four for the Dolphins this season -- including each of the last three contests. He posted career highs of 203 yards and 25 carries against the Bills, ripping off a 76-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to all but seal the game.
"I understand the questions," Bush said. "I was hurt a few years and I wasn't getting a lot of touches and yards. Rightfully so, people should be questioning whether I can do it or not. But I know given the opportunity, I can show that I can be a good back."
The Patriots limited Bush to 38 yards on 11 carries in the season opener while Brady stole the show, passing for a team-record 517 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-24 victory Sept. 12.
"Embarrassing," Miami safety Yeremiah Bell said. "That can't happen."
Wes Welker had eight catches for 160 yards in that game, including a 99-yard touchdown. The NFL leader with 104 receptions for a career-high 1,380 yards, Welker has averaged 105.4 receiving yards in eight meetings with the Dolphins, who traded him to New England in 2007.
The Patriots' passing attack proved last week that opponents must pick their poison. With Welker and star tight end Rob Gronkowski combining for just eight catches and 94 yards, tight end Aaron Hernandez stepped up with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown.
"You never know who is going to be heavily involved," Gronkowski said.
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1. Miami needs to shorten the game: The Dolphins need to control the tempo of the game with a physical ground attack. With 127.4 yards per contest, Miami has been solid rushing the football in 2011. New England has been inconsistent defending the run, giving up 117.6 yards per game and 4.6 yards per attempt. Look for Dolphins offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to pound the football with Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, who combined for 245 yards in Week 15.
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|Avg Points Allowed||19.7||21.4|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||MIA|
|Rush Yds Allowed||MIA|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|New England leads 15-7|
|Sep 12, 2011||MIA 24, NE 38|
|Jan 2, 2011||MIA 7, @NE 38|
|Oct 4, 2010||MIA 14, NE 41|
|Dec 6, 2009||MIA 22, NE 21|
|Nov 8, 2009||MIA 17, @NE 27|
|Nov 23, 2008||MIA 28, NE 48|
|Sep 21, 2008||MIA 38, @NE 13|
|Dec 23, 2007||MIA 7, @NE 28|
|Oct 21, 2007||MIA 28, NE 49|
|Dec 10, 2006||MIA 21, NE 0|
|Oct 8, 2006||MIA 10, @NE 20|
|Jan 1, 2006||MIA 28, @NE 26|
|Nov 13, 2005||MIA 16, NE 23|
|Dec 20, 2004||MIA 29, NE 28|
|Oct 10, 2004||MIA 10, @NE 24|
|Dec 7, 2003||MIA 0, @NE 12|
|Oct 19, 2003||MIA 13, NE 19|
|Dec 29, 2002||MIA 24, @NE 27|
|Oct 6, 2002||MIA 26, NE 13|
|Dec 22, 2001||MIA 13, @NE 20|
|Oct 7, 2001||MIA 30, NE 10|