Big game. A cold-weather December game in New England for all the marbles. Winner of this one takes command of the AFC East — if it's the Dolphins, they're in the playoffs. Loser, well, let's not think about it. <p> After its disappointing performance in the 21-0 loss at San Francisco last Sunday, Miami will be out to prove that its 9-4 record is not an illusion and it is a much better squad than the one that played in California.

More importantly, the Dolphins want to move a step closer to their second consecutive AFC East title. The weather should not be a factor, as it is expected to be about 40 degrees in New England at game time.

The Patriots will be playing their last game at Foxboro Stadium (they are moving to CMGI Field next year) and will definitely be ready to strap it on when the Dolphins come to town. What follows is a look at Saturday's game.

WHO: Miami Dolphins (9-4) vs. New England Patriots (9-5)

WHERE: Foxboro Stadium; Foxboro, Mass.

KICKOFF TIME: 1:30 p.m. ET


LINE: New England by 3

COACHES: New England — Bill Belichick (2nd year with the Patriots); Miami — Dave Wannstedt (2nd year with Miami)

SERIES RECORD: The Dolphins hold a commanding 44-28 lead and have won five in a row.

LAST MEETING: Lamar Smith, in one of his rare breakout performances this season, racked up 144 yards and a touchdown as the Dolphins pounded New England all the way around, 30-10. The Dolphins defense held the Patriots to a mere 149 total yards in that October meeting in Miami.

INJURIES: Dolphins — WR Oronde Gadsden (hamstring), CB Patrick Surtain (finger), S Shawn Wooden (hamstring) are questionable; CB Jamar Fletcher (hamstring), T Spencer Folau (back), DT Jermaine Haley (thumb), FB Rob Konrad (neck), G Todd Perry (knee), S Brock Marion (knee), S Brian Walker (thumb), CB Sam Madison (shoulder), S Scott McGarrahan (knee) are probable.

Patriots — DE Willie McGinest (leg), TE Rod Rutledge (ankle), Terrance Shaw (leg) are probable.


Dolphins cornerbacks vs WR Troy Brown — Brown is quarterback Tom Brady's favorite target, as he is fourth in the NFL in receptions with 90. Miami's defense handled him in the first meeting and must do the same in this game.

Dolphins T Todd Wade vs Patriots DE Bobby Hamilton — Hamilton has been New England's best pass rusher this season and has a team-high six sacks.

Dolphins run defense vs Patriots RB Antowain Smith — Miami's run defense has struggled the last few games and after giving up 161 yards on the ground last week against the 49ers, Miami should be focused on stopping Antowain Smith and New England's running game.

WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL: New England is a bend-but-don't break defense that allows some yardage but not a lot of points. Miami will need a well-balanced attack to keep the Patriots defense off balance and prevent Jay Fiedler from getting smacked around like he was last week. Oronde Gadsden is questionable for this game, but even if he plays, look for a significant increase in the playing time of Chris Chambers. Fiedler should give him plenty of opportunities to make a play.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL: QB Tom Brady will certainly look downfield to his main man, Troy Brown. But the Patriots have also gotten a surprising amount of help from Antowain Smith, whose long run set up the game-winning field goals in last Sunday's overtime victory at Buffalo.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a much-improved New England team from the last time these two teams faced each other. Brady is more relaxed in the pocket and overall the team is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence. Even still, if the Dolphins want to repeat as AFC East champions, they need to win on Saturday. They know that. Big game. Big consequences. Time to play.

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