It always seems to be important when the Patriots and Dolphins hook up in what has become their annual December matchup in Foxborough, and this Sunday's 4:15 meeting is no different. The Patriots can clinch their second AFC East title in three years with a win while Miami can inch within a game of the Patriots with three to go if it can win its fourth straight, second straight on the road and sixth overall away from home.
Both teams come into the game as hot as pistols, the Patriots having won a franchise record and NFL-season-high eight straight games, many in dramatic fashion, while Miami rides a three-game winning streak that pulled them from 5-4 to 8-4 and back into contention, a streak capped by an impressive 40-21 Thanksgiving Day win over the Cowboys.
"They're as hot as any team in the league," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "They are playing well; they're hitting on all cylinders and they are going to be tough. They went into Dallas and put up 40 points on the top ranked defense in football. We will have a lot of different challenges that we will have to face this week against the Dolphins."
Miami faces a different challenge as well. Its trip to frigid New England has a different feel this year. The cold temperatures will be similar since the forecast is calling for possible rain or snow and high temperatures in the 30s for Sunday, which means likely temperatures in the 20s when the sun sets near kickoff, but chilly temps aside, the 2003 Dolphins ride a different wave into Foxborough than in the past couple of years.
Late season swoons that New Englanders might describe as Red Sox-esque have become all too familiar in Miami and last year's final week choke by the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium in which they blew a late fourth quarter 11-point lead that cost them a division title and playoff berth was perhaps the exclamation point on their December ineptitude.
It seems a talented Dolphins team always runs to the head of the pack early in the season and plays the final month-and-a-half from ahead while trying to hold off any challengers, too often to no avail. But this year, Miami's adversity hit early enough for the team to overcome it. Instead of trying to manage success, the Dolphins visit the Patriots with a sense of desperation, and that might be as dangerous to New England as the Dolphins themselves.
New England has been immune from such issues that don't affect the way it plays, worrying only about what it needs to do from week-to-week. The Patriots will prepare as they have all season and likely go out and play a close game that they will try to win in the fourth quarter. That's been the M.O. of the 2003 club. Belichick said early in the week that his team believes in its brand of football and it tries to force the opponent to play that same brand, knowing that will give them an edge.
"I think this team is confident," Belichick said. "If we go out and play the game we want to play the way we want to play it, on our terms with our style of play, I think we feel confident that we can play with anybody. There are a lot of good teams in this league and there are a lot of different ways that you have to play from week to week."
That last comment may be at the core of why New England is 10-2 and on the verge of clinching the division. Besides consistent late-game heroics, the Patriots are able to play different styles depending on the opponent. They played close to the vest offensively in games against Dallas and Cleveland while opening up the offense against the Colts. Defensively, they simply want to punch people in the mouth and be more physical.
That defensive philosophy will be put to the test on a cold Sunday evening when Ricky Williams brings his 1,013 rushing yards and punishing running style to Foxborough. It will surely be a physical game between two division rivals.
"Ricky Williams is a good back," linebacker Willie McGinest said. "He's one of the best in the league and we will have our hands full. You can't ever stop Ricky Williams. You can contain him and that is our goal. We know the Miami offense starts with the run. If you can't stop it, if you can't stop Ricky, then you can't stop the Dolphins. That opens up everything else for them."
Miami has received a boost the last two weeks from the return of quarterback Jay Fielder, who injured his knee back on Oct. 19 when these two clubs met for the first time this year. Fiedler missed all of four games and watched the offense sputter in his absence while the team went 2-2 during that time. He relieved Brian Griese two weeks ago against Washington and rallied his team to a fourth quarter comeback win before completing an impressive 16-of-20 with three touchdowns against Dallas' top-ranked defense and a unit that holds opposing passers to a 49 percent completion percentage.
"A quarterback's job is to do what he needs to do to win," Belichick said of Fiedler, who is 34-15 as a starter. "He looks sharp and he's a got a pretty good record that speaks for itself."
As for the weather and the Dolphins trip north to play in the cold, Belichick downplayed that factor. "The conditions will be the same for both teams so it's not a big deal. It's how a team plays. They were beating us by 11 with 3:00 to go last year here in December. This will come down to who plays well on Sunday, not any external factors. Whatever those are, we'll deal with them and they'll deal with them."
SERIES HISTORY: 77th meeting. Dolphins lead series 45-31, but New England has a 22-15 edge at home and is 7-3 at home vs. Miami in December. The Patriots are 5-0 at home in December against the Dolphins in years in which they finished with a winning record. The Patriots have won the last two meetings, both in overtime.