The chase is on in New England -- and make no mistake -- the Patriots are chasing one of the two byes that come with the top seeds in each conference in the playoffs.
Heading into Week 14, the AFC East leaders trail Indianapolis, San Diego and Baltimore in the race for the all-important bye that comes on the first playoff weekend. For each of the Patriots' last three trips to the Super Bowl, the team was either the first or second seed in the AFC. Compare that to last season -- the team's first non-bye season in recent memory -- that ended with a tough divisional round loss to the Broncos -- in Denver. It's clear why New England puts a premium on one of the top two slots.
New England's chase for the No. 2 seed starts this weekend with a matchup in Miami against the Dolphins. It is likely the team's only chance for a bye, with the Colts holding a one-game lead over the team as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Earlier this season, when the Patriots and most other opponents were beating Miami, Nick Saban's Dolphins seemed like a pushover. While some had projected the team as a potential Super Bowl combatant in its own host city, that never manifested in early season success. But the Dolphins have been better with Joey Harrington at the helm over the second half and, as New England fans know, trips to Miami are never a sure-win for Bill Belichick's team.
The Patriots have lost three of their last five in Miami and the teams have split the series in each of the last five seasons aside from a New England sweep in 2003 on the way to a 14-2 campaign.
And even New England's wins over Miami have been close, as four of the last seven have come by seven points or less.
Maybe most concerning for Pats fans is the fact that Tom Brady often struggles against Miami. Brady is 2-3 in south Florida as a starter, and one of his wins came on an overtime touchdown pass of 82 yards to Troy Brown. Four of his performances in Miami included passer ratings below 78 and he's thrown at least two interceptions in three of the games.
But with New England still holding hope of locking down a top-two seed and a playoff bye, a win this Sunday in Miami against the resurgent Dolphins is a must. Trailing three teams with a month of football left to play, and losing most tiebreakers within the conference, any run to that bye starts with another win. Another loss, something that seemed possible during in last Sunday's 28-21 comeback over the Lions, would put the Patriots on the outside looking in. A win in Miami could improve Brady and Co.'s chances of returning there in early February for Super Bowl XLI. A loss this weekend, based on recent history in New England's playoff successes, would make that road to Miami a lot more bumpy.