KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
SERIES: 82nd meeting. The Dolphins have an all-time lead of 47-34, but a 28-26 road victory in the 2005 season finale was essentially hollow for Miami. The Patriots pulled most of their starters, including quarterback Tom Brady, by the first quarter to avoid injuries leading into the postseason, while the Dolphins entered with no shot at a playoff berth.
2006 RANKINGS: Dolphins: offense 26th (24th rush, 19th pass); defense 7th (14th rush, 9th pass). Patriots: offense 4th (3rd rush, 16th pass); defense 16th (13th rush, 22nd pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The struggles of the Dolphins' offensive line don't figure to fix themselves against the complex packages the Patriots will bring. It's essential for Miami that RB Ronnie Brown gets off to a good start, because the line won't be able to hold up long in front of QB Daunte Culpepper or Joey Harrington (depending on who plays) on obvious passing downs. Culpepper showed improved mobility last week, but the Dolphins can't afford to wait until the fourth quarter to get in sync. Defensively, Miami has to find a way to get off the field -- the Dolphins have allowed opponents to convert 44.8 percent of their third-down opportunities. Patriots QB Tom Brady has found a new target in WR Doug Gabriel, who could see plenty of man coverage with the Dolphins' propensity to blitz. Brady is beginning to feed off defenses having to pay so much attention to the backfield tandem of RBs Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney.
FAST FACTS: Dolphins: Have eight interceptions in past four games against Brady. ... WR Wes Welker is the franchise's all-time leading kick returner with 2,962 yards. Patriots: Gabriel's 10 receptions the past two weeks places him second on the team to TE Ben Watson's 12 for the season. ... Brady is 27-6 (.818) against the AFC East.
-- LG Jeno James, who didn't practice Wednesday because of a swollen knee, returned to practice Thursday. Dolphins coach Nick Saban said he'd have to wait a day to see how the knee reacts before finalizing James' status for Sunday's game against the Patriots, although James was upgraded from questionable to probable on Friday. Recently acquired William Whitticker is listed as the backup.
-- RB Sammy Morris, who sat out the first four games for violating the league's steroid, is in excellent shape and probably will be activated Saturday because of his value on special teams. If he is activated, the Dolphins must make a roster move, which most likely would be the release of one of their extra guards, possibly Trey Darilek.
-- LB Derrick Pope, who has missed the last two games because of a strained hamstring, is listed as probable until Friday when he was downgraded to questionable. He is also a valuable contributor on special teams.
-- RG Damion McIntosh, who made his first start at right guard Sunday after playing left tackle for the past seven seasons, worked with the first team and expected to continue to start at guard. He'll have his hands full with talented Patriots DTs Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour.
-- G Joe Berger, who has been out all season with a foot injury, wasn't on the injury list for the first time. He could spell either Jeno James or Damion McIntosh against a strong Patriots front seven.
-- QB Matt Cassel wore a black jersey, meaning he was the team's practice player of the week leading up to the Bengals game.
-- CB Antwain Spann (shoulder) wore a red, non-contact jersey Thursday. Spann was activated off the practice squad last Saturday before the Bengals game. He's probable for Sunday's game.
--WR Chad Jackson is still questionable with a hamstring injury, although he did play last week against the Bengals.