When the Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon, they could be putting themselves one win away from immortality. Thanks to the Dolphins' overtime victory over Baltimore last week, the Patriots won't be able to put the Dolphins a step from ignominy. Never before has a team gone 16-0, and neither has one gone 0-16. The latter won't happen but if form holds -- the Patriots will be better than three-touchdown favorites -- New England will be one more win away from entering the record books.
While the Patriots have been every bit as impressive as their unblemished record indicates, the Dolphins have been every bit as bad. It's true that Miami has been involved in its share of close games, losing six times by a field goal, but the Dolphins hadn't been very competitive lately until last week. Part of the reason for that has been the team's revolving door at quarterback, not to mention the terribly uneven play at the position by whoever happened to be manning the spot during that particular week.
First-year Dolphins coach Cam Cameron has started three different signal-callers but it's made little difference. None has been terribly effective and none managed a single win until Cleo Lemon's 66-yard touchdown pass in overtime finally ended the team's misery. The best of the three -- and the competition hasn't been great -- has been Trent Green. The Dolphins acquired Green during the offseason in a trade that appeared to give the team stability at the game's most important position. That wasn't the case.
Lemon replaced Green and some thought he would give the Dolphins offense a boost due to the athleticism he provided while playing behind a sub-par offensive line. But that didn't materialize in his month of starts, which featured just three touchdown passes, six picks and a 65.5 passer rating. Rather than added mobility, Lemon actually found himself on the turf 12 times and he was soon replaced by rookie John Beck.
The second-round pick out of BYU predictably performed the worst of the three, completing just over 54 percent of his throws while still looking for his first NFL touchdown pass. After four starts for the rookie, Cameron went back to Lemon last week against Baltimore. Dolphins quarterbacks have thrown nine touchdowns against 16 picks while putting up an abysmal 65.3 passer rating. Let there be little doubt why this team was still searching for its first win in mid-December.
Predictably, Bill Belichick doesn't look at the stats when evaluating the Dolphins offense.
"I think this is a good offensive football team," Belichick said. "They've improved on their offensive line and they had good skill players. Lemon's done a good job. He's made all of the throws for them. He throws the ball outside, comebacks, he hit some good inside passes against the Ravens. We all know the Ravens have a good pass rush and they change up their coverages a lot, but it didn't bother him. He's had some key third-down runs and has run the ball in the red area, like he did against us on the quarterback draw."
As if the play at quarterback hasn't been bad enough, Miami had to struggle through serious injuries to some of the players who were actually performing well. At the top of that list is running back Ronnie Brown. The third-year back out of Auburn was enjoying a terrific season thriving in Cameron's system that put him in the role LaDainian Tomlinson made famous in San Diego. Brown was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered while in the midst of a productive game against the Patriots in October.
The situation at wide receiver hasn't been any better. Miami dealt their best pass catcher, Chris Chambers, to the Chargers at the trading deadline and Marty Booker hasn't been much of a factor, although he did grab eight passes for 88 yards last week.
Defensively, the Dolphins have been game but obviously spend far too much time on the field. Even reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor has been powerless to put a stop to the losing.
Clearly, as well as things have gone for the Patriots, the opposite has been true in South Florida. How ironic that the team Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of New England is chasing in its pursuit of perfection is the 1972 Miami Dolphins -- the same organization that barely escaped the embarrassment of joining the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for an all-time mark of futility.
SERIES HISTORY: 85th meeting. Dolphins lead series, 48-36. For as much as Miami has dominated the series in the Florida heat, the same can almost be said of the Patriots in the New England cold. The Patriots are 15-6 against Miami in Foxborough in games played after Nov. 1, and one of those defeats came in 2005 while Tom Brady and the starters watched most of the game from the sidelines. The teams have played some memorable games in the brief history of Gillette Stadium, including an incredible overtime win in 2002 when the Patriots overcame an 11-point deficit in the final three minutes and the famous 12-0 Snow Bowl win a year later.
--Tom Brady was named The Sporting News Sportsman of the Year this week. Sports Illustrated gave out their honor as well recently, which went to Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
"Tom Brady has given us one of the greatest seasons in NFL history," said Sporting News senior vice president/editorial director John Rawlings. "You can't help but admire what he has accomplished -- even if much of the NFL world has suddenly turned anti-Patriots."
--With a victory against the Dolphins, the Patriots would go undefeated versus the AFC East for the first time in franchise history.
--Five of the seven games between the Patriots and Dolphins have been decided by seven points or less since Bill Belichick became the head coach in 2000.
--The Patriots and Dolphins have split their season series in each of the last three seasons. A win on Sunday would give New England its sixth sweep in the 42-year rivalry with Miami.
--"I think a lot of guys are deserving, especially at my position. It's one of those deals that doesn't mean that much. It would be nice, but we have bigger goals to tackle." -- Receiver Wes Welker, on not making the Pro Bowl.
By The Numbers: 87 -- Number of points the Patriots have scored in the final two minutes of the first or second half this season, the most in the NFL.
They Said It: "I think that's a conversation that you can have, and the fans can have, but it's not really part of our approach to the game. I don't think it's a good one to have. I don't really understand it either. You're going to pick out one guy that is important and say somebody else isn't? I don't think that's a good way to manage your football team." -- Bill Belichick, on resting his starters over the final two games.
Countdown to Records