PHOTO: New England Patriots corner back Randall Gay (21) breaks up a pass intended for Miami Dolphins wide receiver Chris Chambers (84) during second quarter action of their AFC East conference game Sunday afternoon Oct. 10, 2004 in Foxboro Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
OK, so what has to happen for the Bills to make the NFL playoffs? In a nutshell, win out and pray.
Heading into Sunday's showdown at Cincinnati (6-7), a club trying to keep its own post-season hopes alive, the Bills (7-6) are locked in a six-team chase for two wild-card spots in the AFC. With three games to play, the Bills rank fifth in that race behind the New York Jets (9-4), Baltimore (8-5), Denver (8-5), and Jacksonville (7-6).
The Bills-Bengals game is the only one left between any of the wild-card contenders.
Tie-breakers are very likely to come into play, and losses to the Ravens and Jaguars will work against Buffalo; the NFL's first tie-breaker is head-to-head result.
Rather than flesh out all the scenarios, the Bills are focused on one thing: winning the rest of their games and getting to 10 victories, a total which will greatly improve their prospects.
"We're in a playoff situation right now, we're playing for our lives," quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "Every game we go into we have to win or we're done, that's what it is."
Since their 0-4 start, the Bills are 7-2 and riding a four-game win streak during which time they've scored a team-record 154 points and collected 18 takeaways. Their 37-7 win over Cleveland last week was laughable - the Browns were held to 17 yards, fifth fewest in NFL history.
Still, the Bills are miles from clinching a post-season berth.
"I keep thinking about what Coach (Jim) Mora once said: 'Playoffs?! Playoffs?!' We're not that good," defensive back Troy Vincent said. "We can't think that far ahead. We are exactly what our record says we are, 7-6. We can't think about post-season play. Our biggest challenge is this week. It's going to be a playoff-type atmosphere, because they're still in the hunt, too."
Cincinnati's situation is much more dire, but mathematically, the Bengals are alive.
The game has the potential for fireworks. While the Bills have produced point totals of 37, 38, 42 and 37 their last four games, the Bengals have put up 58, 27 and 28 their past three games in addition to cranking out 1,435 yards, a team record for a three-game block.
"I have no idea how this game is going to go, but I feel our offense is confident enough that if we have to get into a match like that we can hold up," coach Mike Mularkey said. "I couldn't tell you how it's going to play out.
Owner Ralph Wilson, who founded the Bills in 1960, admitted he sometimes wishes his team played in the NFC - at least this year. In the NFC, there are currently six 5-8 teams in playoff contention. Seattle, a team Buffalo defeated 38-9, leads the West Division with a 7-6 record.
"If we were in the other conference, I'd have some better hope," Wilson said. "With our start, we got a little behind the field in our conference, and we have some tough games coming up. Cincinnati is a good team."
Wilson, who blasted his team when it fell to 0-4 by calling it boring, has been impressed by his players' resilience and couldn't be more proud. Playoffs or no playoffs, he said he is confident about his team's future under president and GM Tom Donahoe and Mularkey.
"I'm going to have a good Christmas even if Santa doesn't come down the chimney," Wilson said.
SERIES HISTORY - 23rd meeting. The series is tied 11-11 with Buffalo leading in the regular season 11-9 and Cincinnati leading in playoff games 2-0. The Bengals are 8-4 as the home team; this is Buffalo's first visit to 5-year-old Paul Brown Stadium. The Bills will be looking for their seventh consecutive win in the series and third in as many seasons. Buffalo won at home 27-9 in 2002 and 22-16 in overtime in 2003. Cincinnati was the scene of two bitter Bills' playoff defeats, 28-21 in 1981 and 21-10 in 1988 in the AFC championship. Buffalo held QB Boomer Esiason to 11 pass completions and intercepted him twice in that title game, but the Bills' offense sputtered all day, failing to convert a single third down and holding the ball for just 20:31. Jim Kelly was intercepted three times. It was a difficult defeat, but for a young Bills club under Marv Levy, it helped set the stage for a run of four consecutive Super Bowls starting in 1990.
--The Bills' surge into playoff contention has apparently secured president and general manager Tom Donahoe's future in Buffalo. "He can be here as long as he wants. He's done a good job. I'm happy," owner Ralph Wilson told reporters in the wake of last Sunday's record-setting 37-7 victory over Cleveland. "We're friends. He had a very tough job to do coming in here." Donahoe, who joined the Bills in 2001 and rolled up his sleeves to clean up a dire salary cap situation, is signed through 2005. But Wilson said it's likely he'll open talks for an extension this off-season. Donahoe's future looked tenuous after Buffalo began this season 0-4. When a 20-6 loss at Baltimore dropped the Bills to 1-5, Donahoe had twice as many losses (36) as victories (18) on the job, and he had already burned through one head coach (Gregg Williams). But rookie coach Mike Mularkey has done a splendid job of salvaging this year and a playoff berth is still possible. Buffalo is 7-2 since its winless start and riding a four-game win streak in which it has scored a team-record 154 points and collected 18 turnovers. It had 18 all last season, a team-record low. Donahoe has mentioned often that he'd like to make Buffalo his last job.
--Sunday's game will be a homecoming for four Bills assistant coaches and one star player with Cincinnati connections. Bills QB coach Sam Wyche was the Bengals' last successful head coach, leading the team to the 1988 AFC championship. Bills defensive line coach Tim Krumrie was a star nose tackle on that club, and later coached in Cincinnati. Offensive line coach Jim McNally coached 15 seasons there and offensive line/TE coach Frank Verducci coached Bengals' TEs from 1999-2001. Of course, most eyes will be on Bills Pro Bowl outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, who languished five seasons in Cincinnati before signing with Buffalo last year as an unrestricted free agent. Said Spikes: "It's a big game, it's a real big game. Not because of the fact that it's Cincinnati and that's where I started and all the hype that comes behind it. It's because never in my seven-year career in December have I had something else to play for other than pride." The Bengals were 19-61 in Spikes' five seasons.
--The Bengals lost twice to the 12-1 Pittsburgh Steelers by 11 and 5 points, and lost to the 12-1 New England Patriots last week by 7 points. Coach Marvin Lewis, however, bristled during a conference call with Western New York media when it was suggested to him that his team is doing well. "I know my attitude is I'm not here to be close. We're here to win a championship, and close doesn't get you anything," Lewis said. "We work too hard to settle for anything but winning the football game, and we're going to keep working to find a way all the time to win the football game."
--Bills coach Mike Mularkey and Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, are close friends from their days as assistant coaches in Pittsburgh, speaking every Tuesday night during the season. Mularkey's Bills are ninth in the NFL in scoring and Cincinnati is 10th. "I'd drive him crazy because I was such a neat freak," Mularkey said. "He's a good football coach, very detailed and he has a calculated offense ... We have very similar philosophies. The scheme isn't similar but the mindset is on what we want to do."
--After giving up 23 sacks in the first six games, the Bills have allowed just nine in their last seven. It's probably no coincidence the line started to perform better once fourth-year pro Ross Tucker was inserted into the starting lineup. Tucker, who plays with a noted nasty streak, started four games at center for an injured Trey Teague, then took over at left guard for Lawrence Smith, who had won the job coming out of training camp. "I don't know how much I've sparked the offensive line, but I know I play as physical as I can, as aggressively as I can and get after people," Tucker said. "I don't know if me being in the lineup has translated into the winning; that would be an incorrect conclusion. But we are playing better as a unit and I'm having fun out there. It's a great sport when you're winning."
BY THE NUMBERS: 154. Number of points the Bills have scored in the past four games, a new club record for a four-game block. The old mark was 153 set by the 1992 Super Bowl team during that year's first four games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Who counted the Bills out? Shame on you if you did. At 0-4, you can pretty much look at it like we've been in a playoff situation since Week 5. We're trying to get back into it by taking it one win at a time." -- SS Lawyer Milloy on Buffalo's nine-game winning surge.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bills have signed 11-year NFL veteran Bradford Banta as an emergency long snapper and tight end. Knee injuries have sidelined the team's two top tight ends, Mark Campbell and rookie Tim Euhus, for the rest of the season. Both have been placed on injured reserve.
Meanwhile, steady long snapper Jon Dorenbos injured a knee covering a kick against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday and is day-to-day for the Bengals. Dorenbos was not able to practice on Wednesday and Banta started his crash course in getting used to working with punter/holder Brian Moorman and place-kicker Rian Lindell.
Coach Mike Mularkey described the signing of the versatile Banta as "killing two birds with one stone," providing depth at two positions.
Banta, a 1994 fourth-round pick of Indianapolis, has played with the Colts, Jets and Lions. He was sitting at home in Chattanooga, Tenn., and keeping his skills sharp as best he could.
"I got tired of snapping to a gym wall. It's fun to snap to somebody again," said Banta, who was released by Detroit during training camp. "You get that phone call and it's like, 'Yes.' Somebody finally wants you and you're joining a good team."
Dorenbos has been the long snapper for Moorman for two seasons, and this year took on the short-snap duties for Lindell. There have been very few shaky moments for the trio. Moorman is a candidate for the Pro Bowl and Lindell has converted 17 of 20 field goal attempts and all 34 of his PATs.
"Hopefully, I can slip right in and we won't lose anything," Banta said. "Anybody who touches the ball is an asset to the team. It's something that needs to be there, on time and right in his hands. It's not something you take for granted."
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--RB Willis McGahee needs just 78 yards to reach 1,000 in only eight starts. His nine rushing TDs are the second most by a Bills first-year running back. Joe Cribbs had 11 in 1980.
--FS Troy Vincent's defensive "hat trick" against the Browns was a rarity. He's the only Bill since 1989 to have a sack, interception and fumble recovery in one game.
--DE Aaron Schobel improved his sack total every year since joining in the NFL in 2001, but that steady climb is in jeopardy. Schobel has 7.0 sacks with three games to play, and would need five to better last season's mark of 11.5, which followed marks of 6.5 and 8.5. He's got a shot.
--WR Lee Evans needs just one TD catch to tie Elbert Dubenion's rookie team record of seven set in 1960. The coaching staff is devising more ways to get the ball in his hands. He gained 48 yards on a reverse against Cleveland last Sunday, using an extra gear once he turned the corner to elude three defenders. It was the longest run by the team this year.
--RB Travis Henry (ankle) will miss his third consecutive game. There has been no urgency in getting him back on the field with Willis McGahee playing so well, but it's possible Henry could be available were Buffalo to make the playoffs.
GAME PLAN: In a game that pits two high-scoring offenses that have been on fire lately, this one has the potential to turn into a shootout. It will be vital that the Bills calmly respond to whatever adversity comes their way, just as they did in capturing recent road wins at Seattle and Miami. Buffalo needs to get RB Willis McGahee on track to avoid difficult third-and-long situations where crowd noise will play a greater factor. When the chance is there to throw, QB Drew Bledsoe will look to exploit a Bengals secondary that's hurting with injuries. Defensively, Buffalo's No. 3-ranked unit doesn't figure to hold the Bengals to 17 yards as it did the woeful Cleveland Browns. Even if good-looking second-year QB Carson Palmer (knee) sits, the Bengals' 14th-ranked offense won't change under savvy veteran Jon Kitna (76 career starts). If RB Rudi Johnson (1,194 yards rushing, 7 TDs) gets rolling, it will be a long day. The Bills have allowed only one individual 100-yard performance and held William Green to a ridiculous five yards on 11 carries last week.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Bills FS Troy Vincent vs. Bengals WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Vincent was super in his free safety debut last week, but he's not likely to blitz as much against Kitna and this group of receivers. Johnson leads the AFC with 80 catches for 1,151 yards and Houshmandzadeh has 22 catches over the past two games, a Bengals' record.
--Bills LBs vs. Bengals RB Rudi Johnson: Ex-Bengal Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey have been rock solid, but so has Johnson, who is on pace and on a mission to break Corey Dillon's team record of 1,435 yards.
--Bills WRs vs. Bengals secondary: S Rogers Beckett (neck) and CB Deltha O'Neal (ankle) are hurting. Can Eric Moulds and Lee Evans take advantage? CB Tory James has seven interceptions, second in the AFC.
INJURY IMPACT: With the loss of TEs Mark Campbell and Tim Euhus to season-ending knee injuries, the Bills are getting creative.
Jason Peters has been shifted back to tight end from tackle and free agents Rod Trafford and Bradford Banta, who is mostly a long snapper, have been signed. But the coaching staff is also working 6-6 defensive end Ryan Denney into the mix. Denney played a few snaps against Cleveland last week, and the team sees him as a nice option near the goal-line with his height.
"I tell you, he's a huge target and he's athletic," quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "Obviously, the stuff we do will be very limited but we'll get him in there and use his athletic ability and his strength. We may throw him the ball, who knows?"
RT Mike Williams (knee), who missed the Cleveland game, was able to practice Wednesday. Cornerback Nate Clements was held out with a minor shoulder problem but will be fine for the Bengals.
The defending Super Bowl champion has become back-page news when it comes to the Dolphins.
Miami's pursuit of Louisiana State's Nick Saban for its vacant head coaching position is a bigger story than the Dolphins' preparations to play host to New England on Monday night.
Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga and president Eddie Jones met Tuesday night with Saban, who became the NFL's most sought-after college coach after leading LSU to a share of the 2003 national championship.
The job wasn't offered, but Saban is weighing whether to pursue a spot with a franchise he is believed to have had interest in for some time. Saban received feelers last year from Atlanta, Chicago and the New York Giants before deciding to sign a seven-year, $18.75 million contract to become the NCAA's highest-paid coach.
"Nick feels the Dolphins are a great opportunity and one of five organizations he'd be interested in," LSU athletic director Skip Bertman told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Huizenga's a good owner ... (Saban) didn't speak to the Cleveland Browns or speak about openings with any other organization. I mean the Browns didn't offer him the job, but the Dolphins represent a special kind of entity.
"Every coach has the right in my opinion to speak to people when the big leagues call. I don't believe that he believes he can get a better college coaching job and that he's very happy here. He's definitely not trying to ask us for more money or leverage us in any way.
"Nick doesn't bounce around from job to job, but we're talking about the Dolphins, the winningest franchise since the '70s."
The Dolphins (2-11) are en route to their first losing campaign since 1988, which prompted Dave Wannstedt's resignation nine games into the season. Interim coach Jim Bates said he planned to speak with Huizenga about consideration for a permanent position, but it's believed he would have a better chance at remaining as defensive coordinator.
Word of Saban's interest didn't phase a Dolphins locker room accustomed to distractions since tailback Ricky Williams' abrupt retirement in July.
"We don't worry about stuff like that," Dolphins tight end Randy McMichael said. "We don't worry about stuff we read in the paper or see on TV. You worry about what you see on the field."
SERIES HISTORY: The Dolphins lead the all-time series by a 45-33 margin. But the Patriots have won the past four meetings and five of the last six, including a 23-10 victory Oct. 10 at Gillette Stadium.
-- Making plays on third down has proven key to victory in the Dolphins-Patriots series. The team that has posted a better conversion rate has won 11 of the past 12 games. The lone exception was earlier this season, when Miami still lost despite having a better third-down conversion rate (36.8 percent) than New England (28.6).
Also, the loser in six of the past seven games and seven of the last nine has failed to score more than 14 points. In this nine-game stretch, the winning team has held the loser to less than 100 yards rushing on all but one occasion as well as a 3.3-yard average per rush. The winning team also has come up with at least two turnovers in eight of the nine contests.
-- Miami and New England haven't played on a Monday night since Nov. 1998, which was a game the Patriots won. The Patriots hold an 8-5 series lead in games against Miami played in prime time.
-- The Dolphins have more Monday night football appearances (70) than any other franchise. Miami is tied with Dallas for the most Monday night wins with 38. Thirty-one of those victories came with Don Shula as head coach from 1970 to 1995.
-- Kicker Olindo Mare is two points away from tying Garo Yepremian's franchise record for points with 830. Mare has rebounded nicely from a calf injury initially suffered against New England, sending two of his kickoffs for touchbacks against Denver.
-- Wide receiver Chris Chambers is beginning to move up in the Dolphins' record books. With 223 career receptions, he needs five more to surpass Oronde Gadsden (227) for ninth on the all-time list and seven more to overtake Jim Jensen (229) for eighth. Chambers also needs 73 more yards to overtake Hall of Fame wide receiver Paul Warfield (3,355) for seventh on the all-time yardage list.
BY THE NUMBERS: 58 - Receptions by Randy McMichael, which is just one short of the franchise record for tight ends set by Keith Jackson in 1994. Incidentally, McMichael complained after a loss to Buffalo earlier this month that he wasn't receiving enough passes.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They say he's a great coach. They love him in Bayou Country, and why not? He's been there three years. He has a national championship. He's in a pretty good bowl this year. And he's restored the program. So every word I hear from home is pretty good." - Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain, a Louisiana native, on how Nick Saban is regarded in his hometown.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Linebacker has gone from one of the most solid positions on Miami's roster to one of the most suspect because of injuries.
Junior Seau (pectoral) already is on injured reserve, rookie backup Tony Bua (quadriceps) is out, and strong-side linebacker Eddie Moore (calf/knee) and middle linebacker Zach Thomas (hamstring) are both listed as doubtful against New England. Moore's absence would lead to Brendon Ayanbadejo, a special teams ace the past two seasons, receiving his first NFL start.
"I get jacked up just playing special teams," said Ayanbadejo, who has a team-high 17 special-teams tackles. "I'm going to bring the same intensity and emotion to the game playing defense."
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--SLB Eddie Moore (calf/knee) is listed as doubtful for Monday's game against New England. Brendon Ayanbadejo will make his first NFL start if Moore can't play.
--SLB Brendon Ayanabadejo will make his first NFL start Monday against New England if Eddie Moore (calf/knee) can't play. Ayanabadejo has played almost exclusively on special teams during his two seasons with the Dolphins.
--MLB Zach Thomas is listed as doubtful for Monday's game against New England. Thomas has missed his past two starts because of a hamstring injury.
--LB Tony Bua aggravated a quadriceps injury during last Sunday's 20-17 loss to Denver. Bua is out for Monday's game against New England.
--FB Rob Konrad was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a slipped disc in his back. Konrad's roster spot was taken by DB Deandre Eiland, who was signed off of Indianapolis' developmental squad.
--DB Deandre Eiland was signed off of Indianapolis' developmental squad to take the roster spot of FB Rob Konrad, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a slipped disc in his back. Eiland was a 2004 sixth-round draft choice by Minnesota who was spent the bulk of this season with the Colts.
GAME PLAN: With TB Sammy Morris returning to health last week against Denver, the Dolphins have a better chance to mount an effective rushing attack Monday than in the first meeting against New England. Morris and backup Travis Minor were both sidelined for that game, leaving reserves Leonard Henry and Brock Forsey to carry the ground game.
Feeley only played for two snaps against New England before being knocked out of the game with a concussion when hit by blitzing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. The Patriots will probably bring the heat again, as Denver had success with safety blitzes during a four-sack outing.
Defensively, the Dolphins can't afford to allow another 196-yard rushing performance like the Broncos posted. Miami struggled to stop cutback runs as shifty rookie Tatum Bell rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. TB Corey Dillon is having a standout season for New England, who has rushed for at least 88 yards in each of the past eight games.
Miami's secondary also must rebound from shoddy pass coverage against Denver. In particular, CBs Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain struggled against WRs Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie, who combined to catch 10 passes for 157 yards.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Dolphins C Seth McKinney vs. Patriots DT Vince Wilfork: Wilfork showed why he was a 2004 first-round draft choice against Miami, logging seven tackles and one sack. Wilfork splits snaps off the bench with veteran Keith Traylor. McKinney is playing better since given less responsibility on the offensive line calls and having rookie Rex Hadnot next to him at right guard instead of Taylor Whitley.
Dolphins MLB Derrick Pope vs. Patriots RB Corey Dillon, who rushed for 94 yards on 18 carries against Miami earlier this season: Pope led the Dolphins with 13 tackles and a forced fumble against Denver but was fooled too often on cutback runs. Said Bates: "It's just getting used to the whole game, everything that's taking place - the play passes, the misdirection runs, just getting comfortable within the scheme. He's going through some growing pains, but he shows the ability to be an excellent linebacker for us."
INJURY IMPACT: Although he wants to play, Konrad admits that his penchant for injuries and $1.1 million salary could lead to the Dolphins cutting ties with him in the 2005 season. "I would be a fool if I didn't say there is a likelihood a lot of people will not be here next year with the Dolphins," said Konrad, who was a 1999 second-round draft choice. "If I am released at some point, it would not be a shock. At the same time, I'm hoping and expecting to be a Dolphin next year at this time. I really do love the organization and want to be a part of it."
It's a normal week for the Patriots. At least that's what they're selling while they prepare for a Monday night game against the Dolphins just after offensive coordinator Charlie Weis accepted the head coaching job at Notre Dame. Weis is still on board and while he spent Monday in South Bend, Ind., meeting with the media and alums, he was back at work in Foxborough shortly thereafter game planning for a Dolphins defense that ranks eighth in the NFL even while the team is reeling with a 2-11 record.
Asked about the potential distraction this week created by Weis' situation, coach Bill Belichick responded with, "What are you talking about?" as if it couldn't possibly be a distraction. "It is what it is. We'll deal with it. Right now Charlie is the offensive coordinator and we are getting ready for Miami"
Of course, that is all Belichick can say. It's not as if he can admit that the situation will create a distraction because that would give his team an excuse. He constantly preaches to his players about focusing on things they can control and Weis' coaching future is not one of those things. So for the players, the preparation routine remains the same.
"I don't think it's a distraction for us," safety Rodney Harrison said. "I think people outside the organization are probably making it more of a big deal than what it is. We still have a lot of games left. We have to finish strong and I think everyone understands that.
"We're focused, regardless of what's going on. This past year and half, there have been so many ups and downs and so many different distractions and we've managed to stay focused and I think that's one key of this team - our ability to stay focused and keep our eye on the prize and that's what we'll continue to do."
That process will continue with a game the Patriots are expected to win against a Dolphins team that might end up with the top pick in next April's draft. Miami is the second team in three weeks that New England will face that underwent a midseason coaching change with Dave Wannstedt being replaced by interim head coach Jim Bates.
The Dolphins have been more competitive under Bates with three of their last four losses coming by one score with a 24-17 win over the 49ers mixed in. The Patriots won in Miami last year for the first time since 1997 and are 9-30 all-time against the Dolphins in Florida.
"Miami has played us about as well as they can play us down there in Miami," Belichick said as he began his "this week's opponent is the best in the league at something" speech. "It is going to be a tough game. All of our division games are tough. We had a close game with them up here earlier and we had a lot of problems offensively. We couldn't move the ball and we didn't score much. So we know what kind of team Miami is and we know how tough the Dolphins are in Miami. I know they will be ready to go Monday night."
Belichick marvels at the consistency of Miami's pass defense, which is ranked second in the NFL. To be fair, that number might not be completely indicative of how Miami has played the pass since the Dolphins have trailed in most of their games all season and teams haven't been forced to throw, which has kept the yardage allowed to a minimum. That theory makes even more sense when one sees that the Dolphins rank 29th against the run, allowing 139 yards per game. Teams have run the ball 420 times against Miami while throwing 362 times, which is a product of the games' scores as opposed to Miami being significantly weaker on one area of defense.
It's on offense where the 'Phins have had enough problems to make any defense look weaker than it truly is. The Dolphins have turned the ball over a league-high 36 times and their minus-19 turnover ratio is only better than the Rams minus-20 mark.
Miami will finish the season with two games against the NFC North, making this Monday night division game a big one on the national stage where pride can show through with the hope of spoiling New England's bid for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Harrison feels like the Patriots, as reigning Super Bowl champs, have been getting everyone's best shot all season and expects the same this week.
"It's like when the Patriots came to San Diego (in 2002) and they were coming off the Super Bowl," Harrison said. "It was our Super Bowl so we got excited. We prepared harder and it was a very emotional game when we beat those guys. They want to knock you off. They want to be the team that says, 'we stopped the streak' or 'we were the team that stopped them from getting home-field advantage.' So you have teams that get very excited about playing you and they'll do anything it takes to beat you."
So far, New England has done a terrific job dealing with that issue, something it did not do in 2002 when it tried to defend its first Super Bowl but missed the playoffs with a 9-7 mark. This year, there has been only one blip, and Harrison and his teammates have to make sure there isn't a second one against a 2-11 club that's playing out the string.
Weis' impending departure and the impact of his working two jobs doesn't seem to have Belichick overly concerned. The team started working on the Dolphins Monday, but the players were given Tuesday and Wednesday off.
SERIES HISTORY: 79th meeting. Dolphins lead series 45-33 but New England has won the last four and five of the last six while it will go for a second straight series sweep, something it has only done five times against Miami over the years.
While the Dolphins are tied with San Francisco for the worst record in the NFL, they still represent the start of a tough two-game stretch for New England. The Patriots, as coach Bill Belichick has made abundantly clear, have struggled over the years in Miami and will go right back on the road on Christmas day to play the Jets in New York after a short preparation week.
The Patriots, who are 11-19 on Monday Night Football, are 13-12 all time following a Monday night game but just 4-7 when traveling on that short week. The Patriots have only traveled for a Monday night game and then again the following week once, all the way back in 1977 when they lost at Cleveland and then at the Jets on the short week. They are 7-5 in games played after a Monday night road game.
The Patriots are 4-4 against the Dolphins in Monday night games with seven of those having been played in Miami. The teams last met on a Monday night back in 1998 when the Patriots won a 26-23 decision at Foxboro Stadium in a game that Drew Bledsoe finished by throwing a last-minute touchdown pass to Shawn Jefferson after breaking his finger just before the two-minute warning. New England has won the last four Monday night meetings, including the last one in Miami back in 1997, a 14-12 win that clinched the AFC East.
--Dolphins interim head coach Jim Bates worked on Belichick's Cleveland staff as the Browns' defensive line coach. Belichick still speaks highly of his former assistant. "Jim Bates is a coach I go back a long way with," Belichick said. "I have a lot of history with Jim and a lot of respect for him. Jim is very emotional and a very good motivator. He always has his teams ready to play and I'm sure he'll have everybody ready this week."
--The Dolphins' demise this season came out of nowhere and will likely be short-lived. Before this season, Miami had one losing season in the last 27 years, two since 1970, and has been the most successful and consistently competitive team in the AFC East over the last three-plus decades. This year's club appeared snake-bitten from the start. "I'm definitely surprised (at what happened to them)," S Rodney Harrison said. "Sometimes you just get bad breaks, and I think they've gotten every bad break you could possibly be dealt. They have so much talent on the defensive side of the ball and then losing Ricky Williams was a big blow to them. They still have a lot of talented guys on offense, so I am surprised where they are, but you see time and time again that their defense is still good. They're still competing. They are not winning the ball games like they probably have in the past, but they are capable of beating you if you go down there and take them for granted, and we won't do that."
--The Patriots have never faced Dolphins starting quarterback A.J. Feeley, who enters the game with a 56.3 passer rating having completed just 51.8 percent of his passes this season for 1,519 yards with 15 interceptions and nine touchdowns to go with 17 sacks. Jay Fiedler, who has been Miami's starter for the last several seasons but is now on injured reserve, is 4-5 all-time against New England after losing his last four starts against the Pats.
--With a win this week and another the next, the Patriots can go undefeated in the AFC East for the first time in team history. New England has dominated division play of late with an 18-3 record in its last 21 AFC East games and a 19-5 mark since the start of the 2001 season.
--On paper, this game is a mismatch. The Patriots rank ninth in offense compared to 28th for Miami, which is 31st rushing and 21st passing. New England is averaging 28.1 points per game compared to 16.4 for the Dolphins. Miami is ranked eighth defensively while New England is 11th, but the Patriots allow just 16.7 points per game compared with 22.2 for Miami.
BY THE NUMBERS: 29 - the difference in the turnover ratio between New England and Miami with the Patriots at plus-10 and Miami at minus-19.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Working with Coach Belichick the last five years you learn some things that, when you thought you had the answers, there is always somebody that's a step ahead of you. You think you have the answers and he's a notch ahead." - Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Patriots have dedicated tremendous energy toward building their defensive line and took another step in that direction this week when they signed Rodney Bailey to a two-year contract extension. Bailey originally signed a one-year deal as a restricted free agent last March, but then ruptured his Achilles during training camp.
The 24-year-old Bailey now adds to the group of young linemen that are all signed through at least 2006. While the signing bonus is unknown, Bailey will earn base salaries of $600,000 in 2005 and $650,000 in 2006. The restricted free agent offer sheet he signed last March included a $650,000 bonus and totaled 1.3 million. Bailey was expected to be a regular part of the line rotation before going down in training camp.
--CB Tyrone Poole remains questionable this week, but is expected to play more than he did a week ago when he played a handful of snaps against the Bengals. He is trying to work back into playing shape in time for the postseason without diving back in too quickly and re-injuring his knee, which was scoped a few weeks back. Poole did not suffer a setback last week and should be able to handle a bigger load in Miami as he progressively works back into full-time duty.
--CB Ty Law has been upgraded to doubtful for the Dolphins game, a sign that he is closer to returning. He is more likely to play against the Jets on Dec. 26. The broken foot he suffered in Pittsburgh back on Oct. 31 came out of a cast in late November and Law is on the record saying that he wants to play in a couple of regular season games before the postseason starts.
--TE Daniel Graham is another player New England would like to have healthy for the postseason, which means his injured rib could keep him out another week, although his blocking could be needed in Miami against a Dolphins pass rush that has been known to give the Patriots offensive line some problems. The Patriots did not practice Wednesday. Graham has 25 receptions and five touchdowns this season, but was asked to block more often when starting right tackle Tom Ashworth went down back in mid-October.
--LB Roman Phifer could return to action this week after missing the last three games with a calf injury. Phifer went through an intense workout on the field before last week's Bengals game but was held out of action after the trainers determined he could not go. The workout was an indication that Phifer is getting closer and if he plays this week, he will play in the kicking game while taking an occasional snap at linebacker in passing situations.
--S Dexter Reid is listed as doubtful after leaving last week's game with a shoulder injury, adding to the injury woes in the defensive backfield. His loss will be felt more on special teams.
--CB Randall Gay has been downgraded to questionable with an arm injury that has bothered him for several weeks. He has managed to play through the pain thus far and will likely be counted on to do so again this week, although it's obviously not a good sign that he went from probable last week to questionable this week.
--WR David Givens missed last week's game after Bill Belichick reported that he "tightened up" but he appears on this week's injury report as questionable with an ankle injury. Since the team did not practice Wednesday, his status is unclear for Monday night.
--T Marques Sullivan, who was active last week for the first time this season after spending the first 11 weeks of the season with the Giants and the last two in New England, is likely to remain active even if one of the injured players who missed last week's game returns. The Patriots carried eight linemen last week, but prefer to take seven to the game. Since Sullivan can play let and right tackle or guard, he will be the sixth guy with Russ Hochstein the seventh.
--LB Matt Chatham's balky hamstring will likely keep him out of action for a second straight week. If Phifer returns, he could assume much of Chatham's special teams duties that have been broken up among starters Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.
GAME PLAN: The Patriots have to play a mistake-free brand of football, and all things being equal, should beat a 2-11 team even on the road. So expect Charlie Weis to play things close to the vest offensively this week and limit opportunities for Miami's pass rush and talented corners to make the type of big play that can sway the outcome. That means a steady diet of Corey Dillon, who ran 18 times for 94 yards in the first meeting between the clubs. Tom Brady has not had many strong performances against the Dolphins, often struggling against Miami's tight man coverage on the outside. When throwing, look for Brady to attack the middle of the field on routes that force the safeties to cover. If Dan Graham is active, he could have a significant role in the passing game assuming he is not needed in protection the majority of the time. But the Patriots have to pound away and not crack the door open for Miami to kick it in with a big play on defense. Any early lead by New England could mean lights out for Miami.
Speaking of defense, the Patriots will use a two-deep safety look while mixing up coverages on tight end Randy McMichael. He will draw a linebacker in the short zones and safety Rodney Harrison beyond that while Harrison will also draw him in man coverage and may even press him at the line of scrimmage as he has been known to do. The problems on Miami's offensive line have forced McMichael to stay in and block more than he cares to and New England will bring additional rushers on his end if it helps force the Miami staff to keep him in at the line of scrimmage. But New England's No. 1 defensive goal will be to prevent the type of big play that can give Miami hope. It has to play the bend-but-don't-break style that will force a struggling Dolphins offense to execute upwards of 10-12 plays to find the end zone while banking on the fact that the 28th ranked unit cannot do that.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Patriots CBs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay vs. Dolphins WRs Marty Booker and Chris Chambers. The two starting Miami wideouts combined to catch 13 passes for 160 yards in the first meeting and that was with Ty Law on the field for New England. Booker had a huge day with seven catches for 123 yards, including a 45-yard reception on which he was stopped just shy of the end zone. Chambers counted a 10-yard touchdown grab among his six receptions. The Patriots' corners have struggled at times and in this game, it's a matter of which group shows up and how well Miami's pass protection holds up against the Patriots rush. The Patriots defensive backfield played a mistake-filled game last week with Troy Brown getting exposed in the slot despite an interception that masked his struggles. The Patriots' corners have to perform better this week to avoid the upset. Miami is sure to test the Patriots cover men down the field, outside the numbers. The winner of those battles might just be winner in this game.
--Patriots S Rodney Harrison vs. Dolphins TE Randy McMichael. This has become a solid matchup since the two engaged in a war of words last season after McMichael's eight-catch, 102-yard day against New England. Harrison shut out the young tight end in the rematch, but McMichael did have four catches for 62 yards in the earlier meeting this year and is second on the team with 58 receptions. He and Chambers are Miami's top red zone threats and don't be surprised to see McMichael lined up in the slot trying to draw Troy Brown in coverage.
--Patriots LT Matt Light vs. Dolphins DE Jason Taylor. This is becoming one of the better matchups in the division, one along the lines of Bruce Armstrong vs. Bruce Smith for so many years in the 1990s. Taylor leads the Dolphins with 7.5 sacks and has given Light plenty of trouble in Miami. Light has struggled at times this season and took a poor performance in Cleveland personally a couple weeks back. Now it's time to see if he can back up his words. Taylor can ruin a game with a strip-sack at any moment.
--Patriots RB Corey Dillon vs. Dolphins MLB Zach Thomas or Derrick Pope. Dillon has rushed for 1,309 yards this season and had 94 in the first meeting, including a 36-yard run. Thomas is nursing a sore hamstring but hopes to play this week after sitting out the last two. If Dillon can't get going Monday night, the Patriots will struggle to move the ball.
INJURY IMPACT: The Patriots' injury list continues to grow, which is not a good sign with only three games left before the team begins playoff preparation. Three of the Patriots top four cornerbacks are listed as questionable for the Miami game with the fourth, Law, listed as doubtful. Law, however, was upgraded over the "out" status of the past several weeks, which leaves an outside chance of him playing Monday night. Tyrone Poole also is expected to play, but how much has yet to be determined and might not be until Poole is evaluated during the game. Asante Samuel's shoulder injury didn't prevent him from playing last week after he sat out games against Baltimore and Cleveland and while he is questionable, expect him to start at corner. Gay's status may be more up the air. He, too, is questionable, but after being listed as probable last week, he has been downgraded to questionable with a sore arm. If he can't go, Poole could possibly draw the start in his place. If not, look for Eugene Wilson to play corner while Don Davis works in at safety. If wideout David Givens is unable to play, David Patten will start alongside Deion Branch. Patten has had some trouble against Miami's physical corners in the past, but will get some opportunities down the field to test them deep where they can be vulnerable in man coverage. If Graham remains out, Christian Fauria and Jed Weaver will be asked to pick up the slack, which they did last week against Cincy when they combined to catch five passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Quarterbacks Tom Brady and Jim Miller remain probable with right shoulder injuries.
The Jets (9-4) go into Sunday's game against Seattle (7-6) at the Meadowlands with the NFL's 22nd-ranked passing attack and averaging 20 points per game - causing outsiders to doubt the abilities of quarterback Chad Pennington.
While Pennington isn't concerned with the naysayers, he is cognizant of the fact that if the Jets don't pick up their offense over their final three games, a playoff berth will be in jeopardy.
Pennington dismisses the perception that he can't win the big game - an accusation that has its roots in his failing to throw for a touchdown in losses at New England and Pittsburgh this season.
Pennington, however, completed 70 percent of his passes and threw seven touchdowns with no interceptions over the final two games of 2002 at New England and against Green Bay, wins the Jets needed in order to make the playoffs.
"He got us into the playoffs," coach Herman Edwards said. "He had to win some tough games down the stretch to get us in. I think he's done a pretty good job for the most part."
The Jets finish the season with Seattle, (a team struggling to stay atop the NFC West), New England (the team they couldn't beat earlier this year and the one forcing the Jets to fight for a wild card spot) and then at St. Louis (a team battling the Seahawks for the NFC West).
With three interceptions against Pittsburgh last week, Pennington has lost some of his luster. Yet all he's worried about is getting the Jets back on a roll for the final three games headed into the postseason.
"I want to be firing on all cylinders to where when we go in the playoffs and we know we have to go on the road, we feel comfortable with that and we feel fine with that and we can play with confidence," Pennington said. "We're right here on the edge and I don't want to be close. I don't want to be a 9-7 or 10-6 team sitting at home. I want to be a 12-4 team looking forward to the playoffs."
In his first 16 starts, Pennington threw 32 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and posted a 108.9 passer rating while the Jets scored 25 points per game.
In the last 15 starts, Pennington has thrown just 14 touchdowns to 15 interceptions, with his rating dropping to 84.1 and the Jets scoring 20 points per game.
But the Jets were 10-6 in those first 16 starts and 9-6 over the next 15, meaning the bottom line is still winning games.
"We have to find a way to get over the hump and we will. We will find a way," Pennington said. "(This team) has the makeup to get over the hump and not just get close."
SERIES HISTORY - 16th meeting. Seahawks lead series 8-7. The Jets haven't played Seattle since 1999 but they've won the last four meetings and seven of the last eight dating back to 1985. The contests have always been mixed, from 38-7 and 41-3 blowouts in 1986 and 1997 to 16-10 and 32-31 squeakers in 1995 and 1998.
The Jets can virtually clinch a playoff spot with a win over Seattle this week coupled with a Denver loss and a tie or a loss by Buffalo and Jacksonville. That combination should get the Jets in as long as they aren't forced to go into the strength of victory tiebreaker with Baltimore and Denver. The Jets are way behind in that area with just six games against winning teams and only wins against San Diego and Buffalo, which just passed the .500 mark last week.
The Jets know that Chad Pennington, who missed three weeks with a shoulder injury, is still sore and will remain so for the rest of the season. The organization says it won't affect his throwing but his receivers do see a bit of difference.
"Chad always had a nice ball but you can sense at times and you see him throw it different," Santana Moss said. "You can expect that (after the injury). You know it's going to linger a little bit, but he's doing a good job with it."
BY THE NUMBERS: 20.6 - The number of yards Santana Moss is averaging per catch. Yet he has just 34 receptions, just four in the last two games for 43 yards.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I like his attitude. I like his persona. I like his toughness. He likes football, he likes playing football. He's a very competitive guy. That's what he brings to the table." - coach Herman Edwards said of LG Pete Kendall, whose signing in the offseason has solidified the offensive line.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Jets will have some decisions on defense. Coordinator Donnie Henderson makes injured players - even starters - work their way back into the lineup rather than just hand them their jobs back.
Linebacker Mark Brown has played well the last three weeks in place of Victor Hobson (high ankle sprain) and while he may not start if Hobson returns this week, he's likely to get a good portion of the snaps.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--CB Terrell Buckley, struggling as the Jets' nickel back, could lose playing time to rookie Derrick Strait. Buckley's gambling style hasn't worked of late and it burned him against the Steelers when he gave up the 46-yard pass to Lee Mays in the fourth quarter.
--LB Victor Hobson practiced Wednesday. He has missed three games with a high ankle sprain but could be ready to return this week, especially with the Jets needing their big hitters against Seattle RB Shaun Alexander.
--QB Chad Pennington is recovered from his strained rotator cuff but he's still sore, a condition that will continue the rest of the season. Pennington has never been a deep passer so it's not as if the Jets will lose their ability to bomb downfield, but it could be affecting his mechanics, something that caused him problems last week at Pittsburgh.
--DE John Abraham is at least another week away. He hasn't begun running yet and was limping around the locker room with a brace over his sprained right knee.
GAME PLAN: The Jets are going to put in more man-to-man schemes to go along with their cover two because without a shutdown cover corner and Terrell Buckley struggling at nickel back, they will need help against Seattle's Darrell Jackson and Jerry Rice. With Seattle using three-and four-wide receiver sets, the Jets will have to go to the nickel and dime a lot.
With Seattle expected to throw eight men in the box to stop the Jets' running attack, Chad Pennington will get his opportunities. Of his 31 pass attempts, 24 went to the wide receivers so expect the Jets to stay aggressive in the passing game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Jets MLB Jonathan Vilma vs. Seattle RB Shaun Alexander. The Jets had problems bringing down Pittsburgh's big backs last week without LB Victor Hobson and DE John Abraham and their big-hitting style inside. Hobson might return this week but the Jets won't be able to bring down Alexander with just one man. They'll have to get everyone involved and swarm him.
--Jets QB Chad Pennington vs. CB Marcus Trufant. With the Seattle safeties expected to lend a hand against the run, Pennington could catch the Seahawks in a number of one-on-one opportunities. Trufant often takes risks and he has been burned plenty this season - the Seahawks are ranked 23rd against the pass.
INJURY IMPACT: DE John Abraham is definitely out, he hasn't even begun running this week and is still walking around with a brace on his sprained right knee. ... LB Victor Hobson is practicing again this week after missing the last three with a high ankle sprain. He is listed as probable and is expected to play. He should be close to 100 percent.