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 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.
PREDICTION: Patriots 24-17
--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. Recently acquired William Whitticker is listed as the backup.
--RB Sammy Morris practiced for the second consecutive day after sitting out the first four games for violating the league's steroid policy. Morris, who is in excellent shape, 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. He said he's feeling fine and expects to play. 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, is working 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, isn't on the injury list for the first time. He could spell either Jeno James or Damion McIntosh against a strong Patriots front seven.
--CB Eddie Jackson (toe) again practiced Thursday with a red injury jersey and is listed as probable for Sunday's game at New England. A defensive reserve, Jackson was originally injured Sept. 24 against Tennessee but played in last Sunday's 17-15 loss to Houston and had one special teams tackle.
--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.
SCOUTING THE TEAMS
Dolphins coach Nick Saban added quarterback Daunte Culpepper to the injury list as probable to play with a sore right shoulder, a move that came after Culpepper reportedly hardly practiced during Thursday's closed session.
Saban made no mention of Culpepper's status during his press conference.
Apparently, backup quarterback Joey Harrington took the bulk of the snaps with the first team Thursday, as he prepared to replace Culpepper if the shoulder worsens in the next two days.
Ironically, Culpepper is coming off his best game of the season, albeit in a losing cause to the 1-3 Texans, who still possess the league's 32nd-ranked defense. Culpepper completed 23 of 39 for 249 yards with one touchdown pass, but in the frantic fourth-quarter comeback attempt, he hit 11 of 17 for 134 yards.
"I thought he was more decisive," Saban said. "I thought he made good decisions. Especially at the end of the game, he seemed to play extremely well and have good command over what was going on."
Although he was sacked five more times to bring his league-high total to 21, for the first time this season, Culpepper adroitly eluded a couple of pass rushers with his speed.
"He moved around better in the game," Saban said. "I think some of that's coming back for him, and hopefully it will continue to improve each week."
It is unknown how Culpepper injured the shoulder, although he did throw a couple of blocks during the game, including one on the wacky option pass by running back Ronnie Brown on the desperately needed two-point conversion in the final two minutes.
Of course, it could be a ploy by Saban, in response to his mentor's trademark move of placing half his roster on the injured list. This week, New England coach Belichick has 10 players on the list for Sunday's game against the Dolphins, including starting quarterback Tom Brady -- who's also listed as probable with a right shoulder injury.
Harrington was acquired by the Dolphins as insurance against Culpepper not being ready for the start of the season while his surgically repaired knee healed, but he has not played a down so far.
Over the past few months, New Englanders have become familiar with the scaphoid bone. First Tedy Bruschi broke the small bone in his wrist during training camp, which caused him to miss the season opener. Now cornerback Ellis Hobbs is suffering from the same injury. Hobbs broke his wrist against the Broncos and had surgery on Sept. 27.
"We found out, got the diagnosis on it and tried to get in as fast as possible," Hobbs said. "We got it taken care of last Wednesday. We're back, trying to go."
Hobbs wasn't at practice last week, and has been absent from practice so far this week as well. He said when he first broke his wrist, he was unaware that he was seriously injured.
"I didn't really feel it at first," Hobbs said, "but I knew something had happened. The more I talked about it and thought about it, the more it hurt. I tried to put it out of my mind until the end of the game, and then after the game it hurt pretty bad."
Hobbs is eager to get back out on the field, but with the Patriots having a bye week after this Sunday's game against Miami, it's doubtful he'll suit up against the Dolphins.
"It's a blessing (to have a bye week after Miami), but it's one of those things where it's only a blessing if I take advantage of it," he said. "I'm not thinking like that. I'm thinking day-to-day, and whatever happens, we go on from there. I think everybody wants that bye week here to get ready for the rest of the season."
Because he and Bruschi had the same bone broken, he asked the veteran's advice about the injury once he realized the two had a similar injury.
"Everybody's different as far as recovery wise and things like that," Hobbs said. "I kind of asked Tedy, 'How do you feel when you play with it? How do you feel about it?,' but I try to stay away from that and just focus on me being ready, because I am my own person. Positive thinking for me -- I take a lot of pride in that. I do believe how positive you think about the situation, the faster you do heal."
With Hobbs probably being out for the Miami game, veteran Chad Scott will get his second consecutive start this Sunday. Scott isn't as fast as Hobbs, but he brings a physical presence to the secondary, and he played very well against Cincinnati. With Hobbs, Artrell Hawkins and Eugene Wilson all listed as questionable on the injury report, Scott will be depended on to play a big role again this week.
Hobbs said that he can't stand being injured, even if it's just for a short period of time. The second-year corner is looking forward to returning as soon as possible.
"It's been a long time, man, even through college," he said. "I've only had one year in the league, but to miss that game, it hurt a lot. I had a couple tears, here and there -- in my own room. Not in front of everyone. It's just one of those growing spots. It humbles you a lot and makes you appreciate the game even more. The way I play the game, a lot of people come off making it seem like I'm being cocky. But I just appreciate the game that much, because I know you're always one play away. Obviously, I was shown that. I'm very appreciative, and I'll be back out there as soon as it's healed."
Game Plans and Strategies
Final Injury Report
Behind Enemy Lines - Dolphins version: Part 1, Part 2
Behind Enemy Lines - Patriots version: Part 1, Part 2
Newswire - an assortment of the latest news from around the web. Must read material
Patriots - Dolphins Over/Under Contest - Fans pick the over/unders
Dolphins Message Boards - Fan forums before, during and after the game
Patriots Message Boards - Fan forums before, during and after the game
Postgame - Games Balls and Goats - who played poorly, who played well