KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Kevin Harlan; Randy Cross
SERIES: 81st meeting. The Dolphins have an all-time lead of 46-34, although the Patriots have won five of the past six encounters. Tight end Ben Watson caught touchdown passes of 16 and 17 yards from quarterback Tom Brady to pace New England's 23-16 victory over Miami in mid-November.
2005 RANKINGS: Dolphins: offense 15th (13th rush, 18th pass); defense 20th (19th rush, 19th pass). Patriots: offense 7th (20th rush, 2nd pass); defense 24th (4th rush, 28th pass)
PREDICTION: Patriots 24-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Dolphins likely won't be able to simply pound away with RBs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown against Patriots defense allowing just 95.5 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. Of course, the ground game will work more smoothly if Patriots LB Tedy Bruschi (calf) is sidelined, but the weakness of New England's defense is in the secondary. The question will be if Miami's offensive line can hold up long enough for QB Gus Frerotte to take shots downfield to WR Chris Chambers. The Dolphins aren't sure what to expect from a Patriots team that doesn't have much to gain Sunday. New England coach Bill Belichick rarely rests too many players even in meaningless games, but he did opt to skip practice Wednesday following Monday night's game. The biggest factor on the Patriots' side figures to be the weather. QB Tom Brady is the league's best passer in cold and snowy conditions, both of which are expected in New England on Sunday.
FAST FACTS: Dolphins: Seek first six-game winning streak since 1992. ... Have averaged just 9.0 points in losing all three meetings in Gillette Stadium. ... Frerotte needs one touchdown pass to set a new career high with 18. Patriots: Have won 22 of their past 26 games against AFC East teams. ... Have won 15 consecutive games when temperature is 35 degrees or colder.
Miami used Ricky Williams' legs to defeat Tennessee but might be better suited leaning on Gus Frerotte's arm to top New England, as the Patriots have surrendered only 125 rushing yards on 56 carries in the past four games. Frerotte posted his season highs in attempts (47), completions (25) and yards (360) in the first meeting against New England in mid-November.
The Patriots were able to rush 25 times for 91 yards against the Dolphins even though RB Corey Dillon was injured on the game's first series. Now healthy, Dillon rushed for two touchdowns in last Monday's 31-21 victory over the New York Jets. The Dolphins have prevented a 100-yard rushing performance in their five-game winning streak.
The Patriots were mum on Wednesday about their plans for playing time for their starters in Sunday's regular-season finale. Without a first-round bye, the thinking is that the Patriots might treat the Dolphins game as a bye week and rest some of their key players. Already facing a short week because of the Monday night game, the Patriots opted not to practice on Wednesday - a change from the schedule they followed after their other Monday night appearance this season.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Dolphins C Rex Hadnot vs. Patriots NT Vince Wilfork. Coach Nick Saban said the Dolphins didn't get good interior push in their last meeting with New England, which contributed to Miami posting its second-lowest per-carry average (3.1 yards) of the season. Hadnot, who shifted from right guard two games ago to replace the injured Seth McKinney (leg), will try to get some push against the 325-pound Wilfork.
--Dolphins FS Lance Schulters vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady. Schulters ranks third on the Dolphins in tackles with 75, but he has been beaten on scoring passes of 60 and 55 yards in the past two games after slipping in coverage. Schulters can't afford the same mistake against Brady, who is making a strong push for NFL Most Valuable Player honors. Brady has a league-best 4,073 passing yards with 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
--Patriots CBs Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel vs. Dolphins WRs Chris Chambers and Marty Booker. Chambers' fast finish to the season translated into a Pro Bowl berth, and Booker had 102 yards the last time these two teams met. If Hobbs and Samuel play, this will be another opportunity to test themselves against a solid receiving duo. Injuries and suspensions have sabotaged the passing games of the Jets and Bills, whom the Patriots have played (and beaten) three times in the last four weeks.
--Patriots C Russ Hochstein vs. Dolphins NT Keith Traylor. Unless the Patriots opt to rest him, Hochstein will make his seventh straight start in place of injured C Dan Koppen, who was lost for the season during the Patriots' Week 10 visit to Miami. This will be Hochstein's first chance to play a full game against Traylor, the ex-Patriot who checks in at a stout 337 pounds.
Other than LB Monty Beisel likely filling in for Tedy Bruschi, the Patriots might be able to field their full complement of starters, should they choose to do so.
--RB Ronnie Brown (ankle) practiced Wednesday and Thursday and is expected to play Sunday against New England. Brown needs 114 rushing yards for a 1,000-yard season.
--RG Alonzo Ephraim is expected to make his third consecutive start this week at New England. Ephraim was replaced for several second-half series by Joe Berger against Tennessee.
--TE Alex Holmes has seen regular duty in two-tight end sets since being promoted from the developmental squad midway through the season. An undrafted rookie from Southern California, Holmes helped pave the way for Ricky Williams on the tailback's game-sealing, 19-yard touchdown run against Tennessee.
--LT Anthony Alabi will probably finish the regular season without having played in a game. A 2005 fifth-round draft choice from Texas Christian, Alabi is being groomed at left tackle behind starter Damion McIntosh.
--QB Cleo Lemon may finish the regular season without having the chance to impress Dolphins management in a game. Lemon has served as Miami's third-string quarterback since being acquired in a mid-October trade with San Diego.
--LB Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a left calf injury in Monday night's win over the Jets, was not present for the early portion of Thursday's practice that was open to the media. He did make an appearance during Friday's practice. Bruschi is questionable on the injury report. Before missing the first six games of the season while recovering from the mild stroke he suffered in February, Bruschi hadn't been out of the lineup since a knee injury sidelined him for the final four games in 2002.
--RB Corey Dillon (calf) was not on the field for the early portion of Thursday's practice that was open to the media. Dillon has played in four straight games since missing two games and all but one play of a third in Weeks 10-12. He is probable on this week's injury report.
--RB Kevin Faulk has not scored a touchdown this season. He had at least two TDs in five of his first six pro seasons, with a high of seven (three receiving, two rushing, two kickoff returns) in 2002.
--QB Tom Brady has tied an NFL record (set by Brad Johnson of the 2003 Buccaneers) by throwing touchdown passes to 12 receivers this season. Five quarterbacks - including Brady in 2002 and Sammy Baugh of the 1947 Washington Redskins - are tied for third place with 11 TD targets.
--LB Willie McGinest has 6 1/2 sacks this season, giving him 78 1/2 for his career. That's the third-highest career total in franchise history and the most by an active NFL linebacker. McGinest earned the latter honor last week when he moved a half-sack ahead of teammate Chad Brown, who has not added to his career total of 78 sacks this season.
--WR Deion Branch is 21 yards away from becoming the Patriots' first 1,000-yard receiver since Troy Brown in 2001.
--ILB Mike Vrabel leads the team with a career-high 109 tackles, 84 of them since switching from outside linebacker in Week 6.
--Rookie CB Ellis Hobbs has broken up a team-high 10 passes since joining the starting lineup in Week 10.