Patriots aiming to keep rolling against struggling Dolphins

Saturday, December 18th 2004, 12:16 pm
By: News On 6

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) _ This time, there's no infield dirt for Miami to fret over, and no steamy temperatures for New England to worry about.

Those are perhaps the least significant of the story line changes for this year's visit by the Patriots to South Florida.

Last year's matchup in Miami marked a significant turning point for both the Patriots and Dolphins. New England's 19-13 overtime win vaulted the Pats atop the AFC East, where they've stayed for 14 months and counting; this year's division crown is wrapped up, ensuring that streak will grow through at least next summer.

Miami was bounced from first place that day, having wilted in 82-degree heat and being foiled by Olindo Mare's two missed field goals from fairly close range _ something the team attributed to his having to kick off the cutout of dirt where the Florida Marlins' infield still sat during their World Series run.

And the Dolphins have kept freefalling since, missing last year's playoffs and having their 11 losses this season already match the most in team history. Yet the Patriots _ at 12-1, a mere 10 games up on Miami in the division standings _ insist they don't expect a Monday night cakewalk over their division rival.

``We've had a lot of trouble with Miami in Miami,'' Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. ``We were very fortunate to get out of there with a win last year. ... The Dolphins play extremely well everywhere, but they play extremely well at home and nobody's had more trouble there than the Patriots.''

True, the Patriots have won only once in their last six trips to Miami. Then again, New England has won 27 of its last 28 games overall, is the reigning Super Bowl champion, and enters Week 15 tied for the league's best record _ while the Dolphins have endured an endless series of low points all season.

Yet, there's optimism and even a smattering of confidence from the Dolphins.

``If we come out and play good football, I think we have a pretty good chance to win,'' Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain said. ``These guys are a tough team, man. They're 12-1, won two out of the last three Super Bowls. We've got our work cut out for us, but on Monday night, everything goes out the window.''

On paper, it's still a mismatch.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has won two Super Bowls, while A.J. Feeley has won one of his six starts since coming to Miami. Sammy Morris is the Dolphins' leading rusher with 338 yards; the Patriots' Corey Dillon has more than 400 just in the last month.

And both teams are chasing opposite ends of history's spectrum, with the Patriots aiming to become the third team in NFL history to win 15 games in a regular-season _ while Miami needs an upset Monday to avoid becoming the fourth team since 1997 to end a season winless in divisional play.

``We could beat New England on Monday night. That will take some of the sour taste out of our mouth,'' Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor said. ``Then we could go out and try to get two more wins after that. There are things to play for.''

The Patriots feel the same way, and their stakes are considerably higher. A win on Monday, coupled with a San Diego loss at Cleveland on Sunday, would give the Patriots a first-round playoff bye. Plus, there's pressure to keep pace with Pittsburgh, which has the inside track for home-field advantage in the AFC.

``If we don't go play our best game against Miami, there's no doubt we could get beat,'' said Brady, who's thrown for 3,031 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. ``It's been a dogfight every time we've gone down there. Since I've been here, there's never been one easy game against the Dolphins. It's too tough a rivalry.''

Brady hit Troy Brown with an 82-yard touchdown pass in overtime to seal last season's win in Miami, and the Dolphins are assured of seeing plenty of Brown this time around. Injuries have forced New England into using Brown in the secondary, and teams haven't been shy about attacking the new slot cornerback.

Brown is tied for the team lead with three interceptions _ six fewer than the entire Dolphins roster combined _ and still sees time on offense, catching 14 balls in the last seven weeks.

Dolphins interim coach Jim Bates points to Brown's two-way play as more evidence the Patriots are a complete team.

``Our guys will be ready to play,'' said Bates, 1-3 since taking over for Dave Wannstedt. ``They've been ready to play for four weeks. They've been ready to play all season. There'll be electricity in the air. It'll be fun watching our guys, because they'll play hard _ I can promise you that.''